In my circles (family, seminary, church) we say this with our tongues pretty visible in our cheeks because we understand that it’s countercultural or against the grain to greet each other this way when the whole nation is busy saying “Happy Halloween!” Against the grain, certainly; but I fear it’s also because we don’t understand (not really) what the Reformation is supposed to mean for us now, on the sidewalk, on our way to work or class or the bank. We just know it happened once.
Some of us get it. Of these enlightened few, some understand that reminding everyone it’s Reformation Day is our mission as God’s Church to offer a vital and necessary critique of our secular culture’s terrifying obsession with morbid, occult, horrific, pagan costumes and rituals and superstition, and we refuse to participate on religious grounds. These people say “Happy Reformation Day!” the same way they say “Merry CHRISTmas!”: as a chiding indictment of our flagrant capitulation to cultural, consumerist celebrations. And we somehow never feel happy or merry afterwards.
But there are those among us who understand that remembering Reformation Day is a way of honoring our Christian fathers and mothers who wrote and lived and worked and even died to see the Church catholic become what God has called and still calls her to be. When they spoke of “reformation” they said things like:
Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei.
“The church is reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God.” I wonder if that phrase is as familiar to us as it was to our Protestant fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters. Maybe it is familiar to us, but only in parts. “Semper Reformanda” has become a battle-scarred banner waved over the war zones of conflicting churches since Luther’s hammer rang out over Wittenburg’s town square. Both sides always claim it for their own as the justification for their innovative ministry model or new church program or revolutionary approach to Christianity. We glibly throw “Always Reforming” around with a grin on our faces whenever we want to accelerate change in our communities.
But that’s not the phrase we hold dear: “The church is reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God.” We don’t get to wave around the parts we like, the parts we can fit to serve our agendas. We have received a strong statement of sound doctrine and we cut it apart at our own peril. A few key observations:
- There is no active verb in this sentence! We mistranslate “Semper Reformanda” to mean “Always Reforming” and get excited because now we have a mission, a task, a job to do. We roll up our shirt sleeves and find out too late that there is nothing we do. “Reformanda” is technically in the “gerundive” form, what we would read as future passive. This word, then, is not “Reforming” in the sense that it is something we actively make happen right now, but is more like “To Be Reformed” in the sense that we await and expect it.
- There is only one active agent in this sentence! I’m not sure in all my church history courses or theology courses or Bible studies that I have ever even heard the last three words of this sentence before I came to seminary, but to me, they are the most important words of the sentence! “According to the Word of God” is the interpretive key to fully and deeply understand just how the Church is reformed and to be reformed. According to the Reformed theologians we celebrate today, the Holy Spirit moves in, with, and under the Word of God to radically transform, reform, and conform the Church to become more and more like her Lord and Head Jesus Christ.
- The Church is reformed already! We don’t think it has, and it seems almost scandalous to say it has, but the Church has already been reformed. It isn’t broken, it isn’t dying, it isn’t failing or falling or faltering or floundering. Precisely because the Holy Spirit is the one responsible for its completed and continuing reformation, and the Holy Spirit is trustworthy and faithful to fulfill its promises, we can be confident that the Church is something to throw out or burn down or discard or disparage.
We can joyfully and hopefully wish each other a truly “Happy Reformation Day!” because we believe that the Reformation is not on our to-do list but is the work of the Holy Spirit, and because the Spirit has already reformed the Church and continues to reform the Church whenever the Word of God is proclaimed and partaken. So, “Happy Reformation Day,” indeed!
For further reading, here are a few similar posts:
- “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei” | The Spyglass
- “Reformanda” | Reformation21
- “Keep Reforming” | Grace to You
- “Dear Calvinist – You’re NOT as Bad as You Think You Are” | The New Exodus