Is the Reformation Ever Finished?

The Church is never simply ecclesia reformata but semper reformanda.

The question of what it means to speak of reform and renewal of the church as a continuing problem and task came alive for me as seminary student in the late 1980s. In a course on Presbyterian polity, we were exposed to one of a family of sayings in Latin that include the future passive participle reformanda. The form it took in this case was ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, best translated, “a reformed church, always needing to be reformed,” which appeared in the Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In this context it was used to warrant a position perhaps better expressed in Latin as ecclesia reformata, semper varians: “a Reformed church, always changing.” This was the meaning our instructor offered. Indeed something near such an interpretation was made explicit in the Form of Government itself, which translated its Latin phrase, “the church reformed, always reforming.”[1] I did not immediately doubt that such was a good understanding of the saying, and indeed from a strictly grammatical standpoint it is not obviously incorrect, but did wonder both about its origin and its theological meaning.[2]

Within a few days I put the question of the saying’s origin to John H. Leith, thinking he was the most likely member of the faculty to know. He did not, but his best guess was that the origin might be sought in English Puritanism. Since this was his answer, doubt now arose in my mind about the standard interpretation that the faith and order of the church is continuously malleable. If indeed the phrase arose among English precisians in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, it seemed highly doubtful to me that it would have meant to them what the PC(USA) Form of Government suggested.

Leith’s guess as to the origin of the PC(USA)’s reformanda saying turned out to be wide of the mark, but not much. The phrase did not arise in English Puritanism, but rather in a Dutch movement—the Nadere Reformatie or Further Reformation—at least partly inspired by it. And indeed the meaning of the phrase has changed significantly.

The idea that Reformed churches must continue to be reformed and renewed has had growing currency in European and North American Christianity for several decades. Often writers express this principle in Latin formulas that are built around the future passive participle reformanda. They have become so common that one writer, who believes such phrases themselves need to be reformed, sighs in exasperation that they are used “so extensively” that they appear “nearly everywhere.” Let us call such phrases “reformanda sayings” as a term of convenience, even though they sometimes employ other forms of reformo or are composed in a language other than Latin.

In Latin, these sayings trade on the interaction of the perfect passive participle reformata, “reformed,” with the future passive reformanda, “needing to be reformed.” In most forms of these sayings, reformata is a foil for reformanda, although, as we shall see, at least one sixteenth century theologian understood them in a strikingly different way.

In this essay I propose first to describe what appears to be the first published use of a reformanda saying in something like the modern sense, then to outline briefly what has been suggested before about them, especially in relation to Calvin and the Reformation. Along the way I will describe how the usual modern interpretations of reformanda sayings differ importantly from the ways Calvin and others in the sixteenth century viewed reformation as a process, and Calvin’s limited contribution to these interpretations. Through this examination, I hope to begin to straighten some of what is crooked in what has been published about these sayings.

At the same time, I take it that good historical work not only clarifies the past, but it can also evoke its strangeness. Much sentimentality surrounds reformanda sayings today. Yet those who used them first were difficult people, hard to please, never content in their ecclesial life to follow Christ’s teaching that one might let the wheat grow up with the tares (Mt. 13:30). At the same time, they were remarkably capable, resilient, and committed Christians, without whose contributions Protestantism today would have a different character.

The sentence out of which later reformanda sayings seem to have emerged is a passage from the Dutch pastor-theologian Jodocus van Lodenstein’s 1674 book, Consideration of Zion.[3] Lodenstein’s book is written as a set of ten dialogues among three men, a minister named Urbanus, who represents Lodenstein’s point of view, and two elders of the church, Stephanus and Ahikam. In the passage that concerns us, Urbanus is speaking, responding to something Ahikam has said. He assures Ahikam that he has heard only a small part of how low things have sunk in the church, and goes on, “If we had the time and opportunity for dialogue and were to descend into the details of our doctrines, then you would be shocked at our deformity.”

Here, then, is the problem Lodenstein is confronting with the central word reformanda: the Reformed church in which things once had seemed so promising has become deformed. He goes on: “For example, we teach against popery that antiquity as such is not to be respected, and it is not an argument when considering falsehood and evil.…” All in Lodenstein’s dialogue agree that the Roman church has become degenerate in faith and practice; however, by now the problem that the Reformed had always recognized in the Roman church had come to be the Reformed church’s own problem. As Urbanus continues, still speaking for Lodenstein, “We have noticed that the good does not exist long (because of depravity), but one must always be working towards restoration.” The constant work of the Reformed church is to be restored to purity. Even when the church makes progress along this line, it “does not exist long.” It is hard even to maintain the gains of the Reformation, let alone to progress beyond the Reformers to an even greater purity.

Then comes the crucial sentence: “Such person of understanding [one, that is, who was busy working toward restoration] would not have called the Reformed Church reformata, or reformed, but reformanda, or being reformed. What a pure church would that become that was always thus occupied? How precise in truth? How holy in practice?”

If an instance of these participles, reformata and reformanda, being used in this contrasting way, such that the second is regarded as an ideal and the first is used as a foil for it, had appeared in print before this, no primary evidence for it has yet come to the surface. In this passage from Lodenstein we seem to have the original use in a published source for the Latin terminology that has become familiar. He used it to formulate his vision for restoring the purity and holiness of the church that has been lost to “deformity.”

Lodenstein’s friend and colleague Jacobus Koelman published a similar thought at around the same time. Koelman’s version was entirely in Dutch, and he attributed the thought to his teacher Johannes Hoornbeeck. Koelman says Hoornbeeck “followed in the footsteps of Voetius,” in the sense that he shared Gijsbertus Voetius’s commitment to further reformation. Hoornbeeck sounded “very safe and reliable” in downplaying the significance of the designation Reformed, saying “[…] we must come to be called Reforming, and not only Reformed, so that we always must be Reforming if we want to be Reformed and be worthy of that name, because that is what we are attempting.”

This passage from Koelman seems especially important because it is similar to Lodenstein’s, but can be read to name a specific source while Lodenstein refers vaguely to an unnamed “person of understanding.” If we think a single source or incident stands behind the two versions, so that Koelman is thought to identify the person of understanding in Lodenstein’s passage, then it becomes possible to attribute the original use of the contrapuntal participles to Hoornbeeck, as some scholars have done. Yet, the available evidence does not warrant such identification. Lodenstein did not write of “a person of understanding” but of “such a person of understanding.” By this he means someone who is intentional about spiritual “restoration.”

Lodenstein does not seem to have intended to direct our attention to any one person, then. The “person of understanding” is a rhetorical device. It could be anyone — Urbanus’s dialogue partners, for example, or Lodenstein’s readers — who learns that the Christian life is a permanent process of spiritual convalescence. Therefore, to identify Lodenstein’s person of understanding as Hoornbeeck is to miss his point. He is speaking hypothetically, not thinking of Hoornbeeck, or indeed of any identifiable learned person. So far, no relevant passage in the works of Hoornbeeck has appeared, though the suggestion that he was the originator of reformanda sayings appears with growing frequency. The Lodenstein passage remains the earliest documentable source, then.

Lodenstein’s simple and illustrative juxtaposition of reformanda with reformata, in which reformanda suggests constant care for the church’s purity, has flowered and mutated in the hothouse of historical, theological, and devotional writing into an entire genus of aphorisms that are given entirely different interpretations. This development began as the seventeenth century ended, but most of the growth of reformanda sayings has taken place since World War II. Recent writers have made claims about alternative origins and significances of reformanda sayings, but few of these claims can be substantiated with research. No evidence has yet come to light, for example, for a pre-Reformation origin. Nor has any Huguenot source been found.

Similarly, there is a problem regarding the exact forms reformanda sayings take. There never was a definitive form, which means that the modern habit of calling one or another form a “motto” is misleading. I am not aware of any evidence that a reformanda saying served as a motto or slogan for a person, movement, or institution before 1983, when one appeared on the interim seal of the newly created Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It assuredly was not Calvin’s motto, which is well known to have been “My heart I offer you. O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” Moreover, as preachers and theologians have begun to use reformanda sayings as mottos or slogans, the forms have begun to vary even more widely, sometimes in curious and unpredictable ways.

Karl Barth seems to be at the center of the modern development of the sayings in both form and prominence. The form most common in Europe, ecclesia semper reformanda, which Barth used in several contexts throughout his life, first appeared in print, as far as I can tell, in his essay “The Concept of the Free Grace of God” in 1947. That same year he gave a lecture in Bonn in which he used the three-word form that was his workhorse, but also said, “The Church is never simply ecclesia reformata but semper reformanda.” One suspects that the “but” was dropped in use, at least in English, thus providing a source for the form that eventually appeared in the PC(USA) Book of Order. Some writers have placed other connecting words in the center of the saying. Thus Jürgen Moltmann, among others, uses the form ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda. Willem Visser’t Hooft, M. Eugene Osterhaven and Philip Benedict supply quia (“because”) as the hinge.

Professor Edward A. Dowey of Princeton Theological Seminary believed this version of the formula should be completed with the phrase “according to the Word of God.” Indeed, he suggested at least once in writing, and routinely when speaking about it, that these words were “often printed” together, thus in the form ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, secundum verbum Dei. Dowey was never able to find an historical instance in print, though he knew and insisted the thought was faithful to the theological ethos and intentions of the continental Reformed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He was assuredly correct in this last point, but it is equally certain that this enlarged version of the PC(USA) reformanda saying was never printed anywhere except by Professor Dowey or under his influence. However, it is a partial vindication of Dowey’s statement that the phrase secundum Verbum Dei appears as the criterion of reformation within a couple of paragraphs of the two central participles (used in a different way) in a passage of Jerome Zanchius examined below.

In 1959, it was Barth who introduced the theme to the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng, who lectured on the theme ecclesia semper reformanda at Basel in that year at Barth’s request. Küng went on soon thereafter to advocate for the saying and his understanding of it at the Second Vatican Council. In the end, a variant, semper purificanda (always being purified), found its way into the Council’s Constitution on the Church.

The only sixteenth century theologian I have identified who used the two key participles, reformata and reformanda, in a single context to speak of the problem of reformation in the church is the Italian Jerome Zanchius. In a short treatise on the reformation of the church based on verses from the first chapter of Isaiah, Zanchius asks a series of analytical questions in which we see clearly how he understood reformation as a task and concept.[4]

Zanchius first concludes from his reading of Isaiah 1 that it is “God himself” (Deus ipsa) who reforms the church. Second, God does so at a time of his own choosing, when it is opportune according to divine wisdom. This, in Zanchius’s judgment, is the reason several verbs in the passage are in the future tense. What, then, is the quality of the reformation God brings about? It is “most pure and most sincere” (purissima et sincerissima). What will be the mode of God’s reformation? It will be one in which dross and alloy are burned away, as the prophet intimates in v. 25. This means “everything that is not according to the word of God [secundum Verbum Dei] is alloy (tin).”

Next, from Isaiah 1:26 Zanchius concludes that leaders like the Pope, who “has first place in the church of Rome, is first in needing to be reformed.” In addition, “everything else,” by which Zanchius means the sacraments and ceremonies among other things, must be restored sicut ab initio, “as they were at first.” Like many reformers, Zanchius idealized the primitive church as the model of the purely reformed church he was hoping could be restored.

In discussing the seventh question, “In what elements does the reformation of the church consist?” Zanchius uses the crucial participles in relation to each other. Reformation consists in the reformation of both worship (religio, cultus) and morals. Both are necessary. He derives this necessity of twofold reformation from Isaiah’s promise that God will call his restored people a city of both righteousness and faith (Isa. 1:26c). The church’s worship and morals need to be reformed (reformanda) until everything is “perspicuum”: religio should be “restored” to a “pristine state” and mores are to be “perspicuously reformed.” Only when this dream has become reality will the church be worthy of being called “reformed” (reformata). Zanchius concludes, “A church that claims it is reformed (reformata), while retaining anything of papism,” is not in truth “a city of faith.” The standard is absolute: if anything of the old way remains, the church is not yet reformata. It is merely reformanda: needing to be reformed. The Church of Rome was, for Zanchius, the ecclesia reformanda without peer. It would be only a little exaggeration to say that, in this sixteenth century text, reformanda was a near-synonym for not Reformed.

For Zanchius, then, an ecclesia reformata was the ideal church. Such a church was difficult to find, but Zanchius knew how to tell when a church was genuinely reformed: it was reformed when its worship and morals were pristine, according to the Word of God. However, Zanchius did not suggest that this ideal church, the ecclesia reformata, was impossible in principle, still less that it was undesirable; for him, it was merely difficult.

As we have seen, Jodocus van Lodenstein and others would later, in the context of the Nadere Reformatie, reverse the dynamic, so that reformanda became the ideal, while reformata came to represent a passive, self-satisfied complacency in the face of lax faith and morals within their allegedly Reformed church. For them, reformanda became an apt way to speak of the need for nadere reformatie, further reformation, in the face of the original Reformation’s imperfection.

Nothing is more common than to read in books and articles published in the last fifty years than that one or another reformanda saying was a motto, a slogan, or a principle for the Reformers in general or for Calvin in particular. I want to make two large claims about this pattern, the second of which has two dimensions. These amount to a case that it would be surprising to find Calvin using a phrase like ecclesia semper reformanda.

First, I propose that no reformanda saying appears in Calvin as a matter of fact. Second, I argue that it would be unlike Calvin to speak in this way, for two reasons. One is that, while Calvin’s normal way of speaking of the reformation of the church, including his use of these participles, shows that he thought of reformation as a process, nevertheless he saw this process as one that could and should be brought to a sustainable conclusion. The other is that these sayings, as they first appeared, reflect a perfectionism about the church that Calvin did not share with Zanchius, the English radicals of the 1540s, or the later theologians and preachers of Puritanism and the Nadere Reformatie who spoke so vigorously of the need for “further reformation.”

My first thesis about Calvin, that no reformanda saying appears in his works, I can only assert. Any claim for what is not present in the Calvin corpus must be made with humility, because of the massive volume of material. However, I have sought assiduously, in both paper and digital documents, and have not found anything that suggests a reformanda saying or the thought behind one. I do not believe there are any reformanda sayings in the Calvin corpus. Nevertheless, this is a falsifiable thesis: all one must do to show it is mistaken is to find one.

To come to my second claim, then, not only does it appear that there are no reformanda sayings in Calvin’s writings, but, in light of the way Calvin speaks of the nature and process of reformation in the church, it would have been surprising if there had been any. While, as we have seen, a good many scholars have attributed such sayings to Calvin or described them as consistent with his theology, Calvin speaks of reformation, with and without these participles, in ways that suggest that it is unlikely Calvin would have composed one.

This begins to become clear, first of all, upon an examination of Calvin’s uses of reformanda. His most common use of the term is in participial constructions that are translated with –ing in English. In other words, he uses it to speak of “reforming” the church. So, for example, in May of 1539 Calvin wrote to his former colleague William Farel that their successors in Geneva were already in difficulty, and he was prepared to judge from the early going of their ministry “what kind of future success there is to be in reforming (reformanda) that church, unless the Lord unexpectedly appears.”

He used reformanda similarly in his small book, The Necessity of Reforming the Church. The running title of the treatise itself makes use of the word in this way: De Necessitate Reformandae Ecclessiae. Near the end, Calvin asks the emperor, to whom the treatise was addressed, “Why then is the charge of reforming [reformanda] the church handed over to [the hierarchy of the Roman church], if it is not to expose the sheep to the wolves?” This, it seems, is the way Calvin thinks of the word reformanda: it is primarily a participle for him, rather than an adjective.

On the other hand, when Calvin needs to describe a church of the kind he approves, he, like Zanchius later, uses reformata. Thus he speaks as straightforwardly as possible of a “reformed church.” For example in the circular letter Ad Diversos Articulos, Calvin scolds his readers for impeding the preaching of unauthorized, self-appointed preachers, “even in a place where there is a Reformed church.” He did not raise a question about how well-reformed such a church was, in order to decide whether it deserved the name. His usage is the same in a letter of 31 July 1563.

These participles, reformata and reformanda, were not constantly on Calvin’s tongue. However, it is clear enough that his pattern was to use reformata as an adjective to describe a church that is more or less free of liturgical and theological abuses, and to use reformanda participially describe a task that must be done in situations where that freedom did not yet prevail.

It would be a mistake to conclude from this that Calvin did not view reformation as a process. On the other hand, it is equally a mistake to suppose that he thought this process was open ended, never coming to a point where he might say, as Beza remembered him saying with regard to the reformation of Geneva, “Things, as you see, are not badly constituted,” and going on to charge the pastors not to make a mess of it. Geneva was “a perverse and unhappy nation, […] perverse and wicked,” yet on the other hand Calvin was confident for the future following his death that “God will make use of this church and maintain it, and assures you that he will protect it.” Moreover, the pastors should support Beza, “for the charge is great, and so weighty that he might well sink under the load.”

Finally, what is most striking of all, Calvin urged the Company of Pastors that they should change nothing about the ecclesial arrangements in Geneva! First, according to Pinaut’s account,Calvin said as much in cold prose: “I pray you make no change, no innovation. People often ask for novelties. Not that I desire for my own sake out of ambition that what I have established should remain, and that people should retain it without wishing for something better, but because all changes are dangerous and sometimes hurtful.” Then, he went on to apply this solicitousness toward the Genevan church’s practice in the particular case of the Geneva Catechism: Calvin had written it “in haste” during his sojourn in Strasbourg, and it was not just as he might desire, but it would be best for the pastors to leave it untouched. For Calvin, reformation of the church was a process that could be completed to the point where it could be maintained, a task that he knew was difficult enough in itself.

When Lodenstein and Koelman spoke of the need for the church to be reformanda, they were not holding up the reformanda ideal as the hopeful possibility that when Christians were tired of something in the church’s faith and practice they could change it to suit themselves. They did not dream of an ecclesia semper varianda. The problem for which reformanda was a solution to these theologians was not at all that time marches on, the world changes, and so the church must try to keep up. Nor was it a way for the church to remind itself of the need to be humble in theological self-examination. Rather, the problem for them was that it was impossible to maintain the church’s purity of faith and holiness in practice without constant vigilance. It was an answer for the ecclesial implications of the problem Calvin described by calling human nature “a perpetual factory of idols.” Lodenstein’s word for this vigilance against idolatry and for the church’s purity is reformanda.

For Calvin himself, though, the solution to this problem seems usually to have been to get used to it, and then to work patiently as opportunity arose to correct problems that remain once “things […] are not badly constituted.” Calvin knew that even a reformed church was imperfect, and he was not normally anxious about this fact.

It was this willingness to bear with the inevitable defects even of an ecclesia reformata, even as he was bound to disapprove of them, that distinguished Calvin from later, more demanding Reformed thinkers like Lodenstein and Koelman. To these, and even to some degree to certain of Calvin’s contemporaries, such as Zanchius (who was unwilling even to call a church reformata unless it was pure in faith and morals), the church’s purity, as well as its influence in society, was a constant task and burden. Thus it was to them, and not to Calvin, that the thought occurred that the ecclesia reformata would have to be an ecclesia reformanda.

[1] Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Part II: Book of Order. (New York and Atlanta: Office of the General Assembly, 1987-88). G-2.0200.              

[2] This article is a simplified form of a more detailed and technical publication: Michael D. Bush, “Calvin and the Reformanda Sayings,” in Calvinus Sacrarum Literarum Interpres: Papers of the International Congress on Calvin Research, Herman J. Selderhuis, ed. Göttingen: Vandehoeck & Ruprecht, 2008, 286ff. I am grateful for Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht’s permission to simplify and abridge the previous article.

[3] Jodocus van Lodenstein, Beschouwinge van Zion, Utrecht, 1674.

[4] Jerome Zanchius, “De Reformatione Ecclesiarum,” in Omnia Opera Theologicorum,  Geneva, 1649, vol. 3, col. 714.


The Rev. Michael D. Bush, Ph.D., is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Athens, Alabama, and a member of the Board of Directors of Theology Matters.

Michael D. Bush
The Late Rev. Michael D. Bush, Ph.D. (Princeton Theological Seminary), was the previous Vice President of the Board of Theology Matters.


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