Semper Reformanda

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 15: (Spring 1997)

Semper Reformanda

Evangel 15: (Spring 1997)

No new movement can sustain its life on the enthusiasm of the early members alone. Inevitably structures and traditions arise to channel the original vision and, not infrequently, to redirect it or ‘snuff it out’.

  Yet lying at the heart of the Reformed faith lies the conviction that to believe in Sola Scriptura carries with it the necessity to be always reforming; always applying the word of God to a changing world and thereby, not changing the message but accommodating its presentation to new situations.
  This was the great conviction of John Robinson, pastor or the exiled English congregation meeting in Leyden. Thus when many of his members left for the New World in the Mayflower and Speedwell his valedictory message included the words, ‘The Lord has yet more light to shed forth from his most holy word’. This was a necessity; his people were going out into an unknown world with many new challenges to face. Unless the Scriptures could be shown to be relevant and applicable to them in their new situation then God would be shown to have failed them. But the God of the Bible is not simply the God of yesterday but the God of our todays and all our tomorrows: hence Robinson’s words. So Sola Scriptura carries with it the entail ‘Semper Reformanda’.

The Pace of Change

A recent visit to many of the countries of central Europe has prompted reflection on several issues relating to change. Striking above all is, perhaps, the sheer pace of change in our present world. In Hungary, in particular, discernible change had occurred in a matter of months since my previous visit.

  However much we may regret change and the pace of change it is a fact with which we have to reckon, not least in contemporary church life. Yet so often Reformed believers who ought to be in the van of applying the world of God to the new situations that arise, seem so often to be left in a ghetto in which we fight afresh the battles of past generations and find ourselves increasingly backward-looking, reactionary and irrelevant. We need to hear the call to ‘Semper Reformanda’ afresh
  Changing for the Worst
  Of course, not all change is good. Galloping westernisation was apparent in each of the countries I visited; a not unmixed blessing. Moreover, it was obvious that some of the worst elements of the western world were proving the most attractive to central Europeans. Pornography and open prostitution is widespread in central Europe.
  Reformed believers have sometimes, and with justification, resisted change because it seemed clear that alien woridviews lay at the heart of some of the pressures to alter their ways. Existentialism and pluralism is increasingly the spirit that not only animates the world we live in but the church in which we worship and serve. We need to be quick to expose the spirit of the age and challenge the worldwide church to return to its biblical roots to encourage Scriptural perspectives and attitudes.
  Yet not all change is bad. Several years ago I visited Latvia; a country with a rich musical heritage. Many of the young people in the churches are, consequently, highly skilled musicians; they were also aware of the music of the popular church culture in Britain. Thus, the songs of worship leaders such as Noel Richards and Graham Kendrick were widely used. However, the significant factor that struck me was the way in which they had adapted such music to their own cultural traditions. Transformation had, thus, taken place and, without losing what was important and vital to Latvian music, the challenge of new music and musical forms had, in fact, been met in such a way as to enrich Latvian church life in a Latvian way.
  It is easy for a tradition with great depth to it to respond negatively to that which seems alien and even superficial. However, rejection is rarely the best response even if it has often been the feature of Reformed response to change. Redeeming transformation is surely the better way; a route which responds positively and creatively to new challenges.
  In worship, for example, it is all too easy to cling to the hymn book and resist the ‘worship songs’ culture. But there is as much that is crass in the old hymnbooks as there is good in many of the new songs.
  The Pain of Change
  Change can, of course, be very painful. Visiting Colditz Castle, we were informed that unemployment in the area ran at over 20%. Hungary has managed to stop rampant inflation only by abolishing student grants, child benefit and freezing pensions for a year. The latter example should, in fact, lead to an improved situation fairly soon; but meanwhile it hurts.
  Often it is the painfulness of change that lies at the heart of Reformed resistance to semper reformanda. Those in leadership are perceived as ‘suspect’ and those losing part of the treasured and familiar find life uncomfortable; even if (so they are assured) ‘things will get better’.
A great deal of charity, wisdom and grace is required here. Firing from our ghetto at someone who doesn’t mind people lifting up their hands in worship lacks balance and love. Is such bodily posture really so important? Wisdom is needed too! Discerning what is and is not appropriate is often difficult and requires a profound biblical wisdom. And then there is grace; grace in the one who is uncomfortable with change, grace in those seeking change.

The Challenge

We shall soon be entering the twenty-first century. Yet tragically, the Reformed movement which (alone?) has the biblical, theological and spiritual resources to provide the solid foundation upon which the twenty-first century church needs to build is, too often, only just exiting the nineteenth century.

Let us then awake to the vision which inspired our forefathers in the faith. May ‘sola Scriptura, semper reformanda’ be the watchwords which lead us into the coming century and millennium and may we, therefore, offer the lead (under God) which the evangelical movement desperately needs.