Sunday, August 14, 2005

What is Reform?

When the United Presbyterian Church in the USA reunited with the Presbyterian Church in the US several years ago, they chose as their motto a short phrase written during the Reformation:

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda

This has generally been translated as "The Reformed Church, always reforming".

Over the past few years, I have read discussions about the meaning of this phrase as it relates to how our church should deal with change, and one comment jumped out at me. The author said that the "always reforming" part was mistranslated and was actually in the passive voice: "always being reformed".

This is significant because it cuts to the core of who we are and what we believe. Is it the Church's job to reform, or to be reformed? And who does the reforming?

I checked the Latin translation with a person who graduated several years ago with a major in Classical Languages, and she looked at the four words and said that "reformanda" was in the gerundive form, and "always reforming" was the way she would translate it. I thought to myself "well, it would have been a good illustration", but then she hesitated and said "There's something I need to look up about the Latin gerundive." A few weeks later she returned with her Latin grammar and said "I'll bet you thought I'd forgotten". She was right, but I held my tongue. She showed me the section on the gerundive, also known as the future passive participle. We have a word in English that comes straight from Latin: Agenda. It is in the gerundive form, and refers to a list of things that are to be accomplished. As she left the room, she turned and said "Oh, by-the-way, reformata is a perfect passive participle".

So, if one wants to be accurate about translating our Presbyterian Church motto, it would be "The Church has been reformed, and is always about to be reformed".

There is more, though. The words "secundum verbum Dei" follow immediately. So the full statement reads "The Church has been reformed, and is always about to be reformed, according to the Word of God".

This dovetails perfectly with the guiding Reformation principle that it is the Scriptures alone (Sola Scriptura) which determine what form the Church and its doctrines should take. Question 3 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, "What do the Scriptures principally teach?" The answer is "The Scriptures principally teach what Man is to believe concerning God, and what duties God requires of Man."

It is hard to imagine a more concise, yet complete answer to this question. This answer is simple, but it is most certainly not simplistic. The Shorter Catechism remains a part of our Book of Confessions, and the more I read it, the more I am impressed with the way it defines clearly our Reformed faith.

The early reformers understood clearly that reform is not something we do to ourselves when we feel the need, nor is it something we undertake when our doctrines appear inconvenient in a modern world. Reform is what happens when prophetic voices, inspired by the Word of God, are raised in response to the Church straying from the Word of God.

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