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Always Reforming

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Both hallowed traditions and innovative ideas must be subjected to the scrutiny of God’s Word.

Articles and letters sometimes appear in The Banner advocating variations on what is known as the “two-book” view of revelation: the idea that God reveals himself in both nature and Scripture. This is sometimes linked with the slogan semper reformanda (always reforming). I would like to respectfully suggest that both of these principles are being misused.

It is true that God reveals himself in both nature and Scripture. The names of Augustine, Calvin, and Christian Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof have been referenced in support of this. However, a careful reading of these church fathers shows that, were they alive today, they would not recognize themselves in the positions being advocated. Berkhof, for instance, agreed with the position of the reformers that God’s revelation in nature has been marred by the Fall, as has our ability to read it aright. Thus, both the more perfect revelation of Scripture and the illumination of God’s Spirit are needed in order to interpret nature. In other words, Scripture interprets nature, not the other way around. Cornelius Plantinga Jr. has said much the same thing in A Sure Thing: What We Believe and Why.

As for semper reformanda, Richard A. Muller pointed out in a 1992 Banner article that the phrase can be traced to the 17th century movement known in the Netherlands as the Second Reformation. The idea was that the Reformation reformed the doctrine of the church, but the lives and practices of God’s people always need further reformation. “Doctrinal correctness was worthless apart from the moral and spiritual reform of the person,” he said.

The Latin phrase is passive, not “always reforming” but “always being reformed” by the Word and Spirit. An expanded version reads: “The church is reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” This motto was never intended to mean that the Word of God should adapt to prevailing theories of the surrounding culture. Quite the reverse: both hallowed traditions and innovative ideas must be subjected to the scrutiny of God’s Word.

The findings of natural revelation can be legitimately used to reexamine our understanding of biblical teachings. An obvious example would be the discovery, popularly attributed to Galileo, who was building on the earlier work of Copernicus, that the earth revolves around the sun. But this is not the same as making the timeless authority of God’s Word subordinate to changing scientific theories and cultural values. I do not mean to imply that this is being done intentionally, but church history shows it to be a real and persistent danger.

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