Question: "What is the meaning of semper reformanda?"
Answer: The Latin words semper reformanda are part of a well-known phrase, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, that came about in the 17th century. In English it is translated as, “the church reformed, always being reformed.” So semper reformada means “always reforming.”
Scholars have traced the origins of semper reformanda to a devotional book written by Jodocus van Lodenstein in 1674. Van Lodenstein was a minister in the Reformed Church in what is now known as the Netherlands. As part of the Further Protestant Reformation, he advocated a Calvinistic theology and saw a need for the church to reform according to the Bible.
Semper reformanda corresponded to the Reformed principle of sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone. When Van Lodenstein penned the phrase, it was not about adjustments and improvements to the church’s doctrine, worship, or government. Nor was semper reformanda a call to be innovative or relevant. Semper reformanda calls the Church to continually focus back on that which lasts forever—God’s Word (Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:24–25).
Advocates of semper reformanda saw empty formalism and tradition as the great dangers of their day. The danger was creating a cultural Christianity where those who considered themselves Christians participated in a form of worship and subscribed to proper doctrine yet did not have true faith. Jesus warned against this and quoted the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8). The part of the Church always needing reforming is the human heart, and continual reformation must occur to return to the teaching of God’s Word. The slogan semper reformanda, then, radically focused the Church’s decisions on the Bible alone. It questioned every proposal for change in light of its biblical warrant. Any reforming of the church must be done according to the Word of God.
Some today use the phrase semper reformanda when making significant changes in their churches, especially when changing doctrine and/or practices to adjust with the times. This is particularly true regarding church policies on sexuality and other current topics. However, this is an incorrect application of the phrase and ignores the historical meaning of semper reformanda. Our constant reformation must be ensuring that our hearts, lives, and practices are being reformed by God’s Word.
The phrase semper reformanda echoes the sentiment of Psalm 119:133: “Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me.” As we allow God’s Word to direct our steps, we will not be conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). In this way, believers and the Church can truly say, “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.”