In his book People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology, Michael Horton talks about the phrase “Reformed and Always Reforming” (page 223):
As Barth pointed out, ecclesia semper reformanda (the church always being reformed), divorced from the rest of the slogan, “according to the word of God,” identified the true church with modern progress – keeping up with the spirit of the age. I would add that the drive in Protestant bodies to conform the gospel to the spirit of the age has often invoked the Spirit apart from and even sometimes against the Word in its activity of “always reforming.” However, as Barth observes, “singing a new song” and “always being reformed” are only commendable goals if they are invitations to courageous and obedient faith rather than simply following the spirit of the age. It means that the church is always being reformed, not reforming itself, submitting itself to the judgment of God’s Word and asking anew whether its confession and practice are in accord with Scripture. Only in this way is any church truly apostolic.
While Horton is no doubt sincere in these statements, if what he says is true, then the opposite must also be true: The church must be willing be reformed by the judgment of God’s Word. It appears, however, that many (though certainly not all) of the Reformed are as firmly entrenched in the sixteenth century as Rome was entrenched in the Middle Ages during the time of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin and are as loath to let God’s Word correct their Confessions today as Rome was in 1517.
Michael F. Bird, in his chapter of Justification: Five Views, offers three reasons why he can be called a “progressive Reformed” and these reasons speak directly to the refusal of many of my Reformed brethren to permit God’s Word to reform them anew:
1. If the church is to be “always reforming” then it is no good simply to restate the veracity of your tradition in the face of exegetical and theological challenges to it, but we have to “test all things” (1 Thess. 5:21) and be willing to modify our tradition if it is shown not to line up with Scripture.
This should be a no-brainer. Something that shouldn’t even need to be said. Ostensibly, every Reformation Christian believes this because we believe in Sola Scriptura. The Confessions were not written to be placed alongside the Bible in terms of authority and certainly not to be placed above the Bible. But we place the confessions above the Bible when we refuse to read the Scriptures except through the lens of the confessions.
2. Reformed theologians in general have read Scripture while wearing a straitjacket and have read Paul through the lens of ordo salutis (order of salvation) to the neglect of historia salutis (history of salvation).
In other words, the Reformed Scholastics of the late sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries (along with the confessions, theologies, and commentaries they produced) are still the dominant lens through which Scripture is read. At this juncture of history, these confessions control the interpretation of Scripture rather than the other way around.
The Reformers thought that what was before them needed to be brought back in line with Scripture (and no doubt it did) but many modern-day Reformed act as if scholarship from the Reformation era (as brilliant as some of it was) is the final word on things and any attempt at further growth, further development, a further refining of our doctrine, in short: further reformation, is simply “following the Spirit of the age” as Horton put it.
As I have noted elsewhere, why give priority to the sixteenth century over the first? If further knowledge of the first-century backgrounds of the NT can shed light on Paul and his situation, why not avail ourselves of that? To refuse to do so is to illegitimately and stubbornly cling to an extra-biblical authority over Scripture itself.
This is important also to number 3.
3. Much Reformed interpretation of Paul simply lacks social realism and often glosses over the specific historical context of Paul’s letters in favor of using the Pauline corpus to forge interecclesial weapons for theological polemics against perceived foes.
There are three things in relation to this point:
(1) Refusal to revisit NT backgrounds in light of further research demonstrates not faithfulness so much as it demonstrates mere stubbornness.
(2) The “Truly Reformed” today spend quite a bit of time in Paul, often to the neglect of other portions including (or perhaps especially) the Gospels, yet they do little more than repeat what has previously been spoken without any awareness of development of knowledge of historical backgrounds or doctrinal development, some of which is sympathetic to their own position.
(3) Bird’s mention of “perceived foes” is a significant turn of phrase because not everyone who takes an opposing view from within the tradition is necessarily attacking or rejecting the “traditional” view of justification though they may be trying to expand on it. Such attempts to wed traditional teaching with more recent development in biblical studies and theology certainly does not demonstrate that such a one is “simply following the spirit of the age.”
This stubborn, militant, and combative mindset demonstrates a lack of graciousness and charity with those professing to be brothers and sisters.
I realize that there is a case to be made that the phrase “Reformed and always reforming” is not itself a Reformation principle but developed centuries later. I have not studied the question enough to be able to say “Yea” or “Nay” with confidence but the very name “Reformed” implied a change from something not-so-good to something better. Until “that which is perfect has come” we should never think that we’ve arrived and reached a point where there is no need for further knowledge or development. As long as the Perfect is not here, we must reform and be willing to be reformed by God’s Word.