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The Reformed Church Is Always Being Reformed Pt 3


Thus far in our series, we’ve considered the fact that the Word of God is simple and yet profound; simple enough for a new believer to embrace but deep enough to continuously challenge his thinking and shape his character for the rest of his earthly life. We have also noted that the Scripture is never subject to change, but our understanding of it must always be. These important principles explain why the church is always being reformed, shaped, and molded by the Word of God.

The slogan, “Ecclesia Reformata Semper Reformanda” (the reformed church is always being reformed) comes to us from the period of the Protestant Reformation, a maxim directly inspired by the teachings of Luther and Calvin. The Reformation emerged in response to a dismal age in the history of the church, a period of unprecedented spiritual darkness and moral decline, a direct result of the Bible having been stripped of its genuine authority. In this period, church tradition had become the standard against which everything was judged. The church had ceased to be reformed by the Word of God.

Guided by the principle of the authority of Scripture, the Reformers insisted upon a distinction between church tradition and the Bible. We now turn to the principle of Sola Scriptura.

What Is Meant By The Scripture Alone?

Sola Scriptura (the Scripture Alone) was a watchword of the Reformation. The Reformers insisted that the Bible alone is the unquestionable, absolute, and final authority in all matters of faith, life, and conduct. There are some who misunderstand the principle of Sola Scriptura. The Reformers did not believe that Christians should only read the Bible or that biblical interpretation should be completely isolated from the history and tradition of the church. After all, throughout the centuries since Christ came, He has been building His church. While there have clearly been periods when the church strayed, to disregard the past and attempt to come to the Scripture as a blank slate is to deny that the Holy Spirit has been accomplishing Christ’s purpose. By Sola Scriptura, the reformers did not mean the Scripture in isolation. By this principle they were simply affirming the Scripture alone is the supreme authority. In other words, all traditions, theological formulations, as well as every aspect of the life of the church must be measured and weighed by the standard of Scripture. It was this perspective that gave birth to the Reformation motto: “Scripture is the only sufficient rule for theology.

A Radical Principle?

Sola Scriptura is not the radical principle some have claimed. By this assertion, the Reformers were not calling for every work of traditional theology to be used as kindling for a bonfire. They were not implying that Christians should only read and study the Scriptures. History bears this out.

The Reformers discussed the Scriptures and carefully worked through their theology with their contemporaries. Many people have the misconception that Luther stood alone against the institutional church. This is not true. He had many supporters and there were distinguished theologians sympathetic the theological issues he championed, even within the Roman Catholic Church. Luther was singled out because his written works had become a problem for the indulgence trade. Under different circumstances, any number of men could have been the catalyst for the Reformation.

The Reformers studied theological works and consulted the church councils of the past. In fact, they realized that ignoring history and traditional theology altogether constituted a grave danger. Such an approach would have made them guilty of the very error they were opposing. To reject everything except their own view of Scripture would be tantamount to denying that they even had a view of Scripture. To insist that their interpretation of Scripture was equal to the Scripture itself would destroy the authority of God’s revelation just as institutional tradition had done.

Revolution or Reform?

We should also remember that the Reformers were not calling for the overthrow of the Roman Catholic Church. Even after identifying gross error, most of the Reformers stayed within the bounds of the church until they were cast out. These men were not calling for the abolition of the church; they were calling for reform. However, if the Scripture is affirmed as the supreme authority by which the life of the church is shaped, the church must exist in a continual state of reform under the authority of God’s Word.

Christ is the Lord of the church and the Scripture is His authoritative Word. Therefore, for Calvin, the true church always existed in the process of reformation under the Word of Christ. The church must ever be subject to that reform which is naturally produced by its confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. For Luther, reformation was an ongoing process. His whole life was one of reformation. Christians far too easily become settled in their own perceptions. The church must constantly be called back to the Scriptures. Under the authority of her Savior, the truly reformed church is always being reformed according to the Word of God.

In the next issue we will discuss other factors that make the continual reformation demanded by Sola Scriptura such an important principle in the life of the church.

- Stan McGehee Jr