Always Reforming

Vantage Point
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.

About the Author

J. Cameron Fraser is a retired Christian Reformed pastor in Lethbridge, Alberta, who now concentrates on preaching and writing.

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Comments

Many thanks, Rev. Fraser, for noting this.  There has often been an equating of general revelation with scientific data, but they are not identical.  General revelation is revelation about God, his nature and his attributes.  When this is forgotten, the doctrine, I think, becomes distorted.  There's a gracious invitation for people to have a continuing conversation about this in this article.  

Well put. I wish I'd said it that way!

As one who has often been critical of Banner articles over the years, I am very pleased to offer a hearty AMEN to this article.

The mistake Rev. Fraser so gently & pastorally corrects is the root of so many errors in the CRC starting in the 80's & 90's.  The path Jesus calls us to follow is indeed narrow, and will likely get narrower in the decades to come.  Thank you, Rev. Fraser, for this reminder that we are to use God's Word as spectacles to correct our broken view of the world, and not the other way around.

And thank you, Banner staff, for publishing this excellent, edifying article.  Please publish more like it.

Like other commenters, I am so thankful for this article and will heartily recommend that the members of my congregation read it.

Great work!

Very well said, and very important to our understanding of what it means to be a "reformed" Christian.

Thanks J. Cameron Fraser for your article on the revelation of nature and Scripture.  I had some difficulty knowing for sure what you were saying.  I think some examples might have been helpful.  What are some examples where Christians are using nature to interpret Scripture and vice versa?  Or according to Jeff Brower’s comment is it scientific data that is interpreting Scripture as opposed to Scripture interpreting scientific data?  That doesn’t quite sound right either.  I think some examples could have helped.

A comment about the Scripture being the more sure revelation.  And of course, as you point out, it is Scripture along with the illumination of the Spirit.  If Christians cannot read Scripture correctly, than such interpretation does not help in interpreting nature or science. A faulty interpretation of Scripture trying to interpret nature/science would be terribly hurtful to the work of science.  And the reality, there is no consistency in interpreting the Bible among Christians.  There are not just hundreds of differing interpretations of the Bible on key issues but probably thousands.  How many different Christian denominations are there?  Thousands.  It is said that Christianity is the religion that has the greatest amount of diversity and disagreement as to interpretation of the Bible.  And is this great variety done under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?

So what you say in your article “may” sound nice, but in reality doesn’t mean much because the meaning of Scripture is no more sure than the number of people trying to interpret it.

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