Most ‘Reformed’ Christians have heard of the five points of Calvinism known by the acrostic ‘TULIP’: Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; invincible grace; and Perseverance. Similarly, most reformed Christians will be familiar with the five Solas of the Reformation: sola Scriptura (scripture alone), sola Christus (Christ alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone) and solo Deo gloria (glory to God alone). Sadly, however, not many are as familiar with another important principle of the Reformation period, namely, semper reformanda = ‘always reforming’.
Undoubtedly, the emphasis during the 16th century would have been on reforming moral and spiritual abuses of an extreme nature, but the principle also refers to doctrine and practice. We need in our day to look afresh at this principle as it applies to the church today in the 21st century.
At the personal level, ‘reforming’ is part of our sanctification. Sanctification implies change. We cannot become less and less like the world and more and more like Christ without some sort of amendment in our lives. It is impossible to ‘improve’ without modification. Change is inevitable in the Christian life particularly in the sphere of becoming Godly. As we are never fully sanctified in this life, there must be continuous change and progression throughout our lives. The bible clearly says that one evidence of belonging to the ungodly is the lack of change (Ps 55:19). Has it not been the teaching of reformed theologians for years that ‘revelation’ itself is something progressive and developing? If that is so, then surely the church and theology should be constantly reforming also.
Time changes, language changes, the world changes, but the word of God never changes. Therefore the church must adapt to apply to the new order of life. There are very distinct and definite dangers in doing this, but there are greater dangers in not doing it. An example would be the publishing of new versions of scripture, which has been compared to re-wiring a house with the electric power still on! Very dangerous indeed, but if the house is not re-wired, the house could eventually blow up! Whether we like it or not, the life of faith is a dangerous life if we are to be faithful to our times.
Part of the problem is that theology in the bible has not been presented to us in a grid or database format so that we can simply use it as a sort of ‘spiritual template’ to evaluate a new theory or practice. By definition, theology is a deduction drawn from the study of certain data and the general principles of the bible. Therefore, as the environment in which the church operates is constantly changing, so too, the church needs to address these changing times.
The bible tells us there is another gospel that is really not another gospel (Gal 1:6, 7). We are urged not to be children in understanding (1 Cor 14:20). We are to test all things (1 Thess 5:21). We are warned that a time will certainly come when sound doctrine will not be endured (2 Tim 4:3).
Now, what are the implications of these biblical challenges? Is it not that times will change and the church has a duty to be aware of the different forms in which error can present itself? For example, the new ‘arminianism’ is called ‘open theism’; the denial of Christ’s atonement is now couched in many vague terms culminating in ‘cosmic child abuse’; and ‘salvation by works’ can easily be presented in various ways as the need to provide evidence of regeneration. For these reasons the church must keep alert and be aware that heresy changes its coat. It is essential that the church does not throw the baby out with the bath water by clinging to tradition and forms instead of identifying and putting emphasis on the real crux of the matter – bible truth.
If the church is honest, it should confess that it hates ‘change’ as much as the world hates it, and yet, the Reformation itself was all about change.
The complaint made against the ‘reformers’ was that they were ‘modern’. We conveniently forget that both the reformers and the Puritans were ‘modern’ in their day. Now it is clearly wrong to advocate change for the sake of change, but we must remember that these reformers were not popular precisely because they promoted change. They were seen, at least to the church of the day, to be ‘innovators’ and their agenda appeared disruptive and to be quite unnecessary. Yet, they had the truth and fought against all their opponents to achieve the blessings which we have inherited.
This highlights the importance of ensuring we, today, are building on the truth of the bible, not just tradition and what our fathers did. As our culture changes, theological expressions are misunderstood by a secular and multi-faith society, and there is more and more need to express in contemporary language what the bible means by certain terms.
For example, the term ‘born again’ is much more likely to be understood as some form of rebirth similar to ‘Karma’. For many teenagers ‘atonement’ is likely to mean what it means in the film: ‘The Atonement’ – not what the Shorter Catechism says. In the film, the idea of ‘atonement’ is portrayed as just about the very opposite of what it means in the bible!, as of course the word ‘gay’ has changed its meaning.
I believe the bible is relevant to every age; in every age and is for every age. If that is true, then the church has a duty to answer the questions which a new generation asks – not the questions which a past generation found helpful. Our age has been conditioned by the values and definitions of humanism and postmodern philosophy and as a result it is not interested so much in the questions that our forefathers asked, but is concerned with an entirely different set of questions.