The phrase “Always Reforming” (Semper reformanda, technically “Always to be reformed”) has been enlisted here, in connection with a Day of Common Learning at this University with what one might call pietist roots and/or sympathies, in its broadest possible (rather than any strictly historical) sense, as “encompassing notions of change, renewal, improvement, alteration for the better, and innovation,” whatever their disciplinary home, and whether they be properly theological in nature or not (Assistant Provost and Director of the Center for Scholarship and Faculty Development Dr. Margaret Brown).

That said, I provide, for those interested in the history of the saying, the following comments—which, however, make no attempt to distinguish among the very different understandings of continuous reformation encompassed by the idea, or the very different and sometimes even contradictory uses to which the various formulae expressing it have been put (Mouthaan, 89).

—Steve Perisho, Theology & Philosophy Librarian


Although there are now many variants on the phrase, at the core of them all lies (in the 21st century) the formulation ecclesia reformata semper reformanda“The church reformed [and/but/because] always to be reformed,” i.e. perpetually in need of further reformation.  (It should be noted that one might say exactly this of the Christian university (Universitas) as well.)  It was not used by the 16th-century Protestant Reformers, who thought the requisite degree of reformation achievable, and even—as did Calvin, who was followed in this by Jerome Zanchi (1516-1590), André Rivet (1572-1651), François Turretin (1623-1687), and Peter von Mastricht (1630-1709)—urged their successors not to introduce any further innovations (Busch, 298; van Lieburg is rightly more cautious, but cites no specifics:  “The conviction that the church had continually to examine and purify itself in doctrine and practice cannot be denied to great reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin” (44, italics mine)).  Indeed, “The ‘reformanda’ is in Zanchi and Turretin to be understood of Papism” exclusively, and “notthe Reformed Church”, such that Peter von Mastricht could speak of a two-fold theology:  “reformandaor papal, & reformata by Zwingli, Luther, and others” (Mahlmann (2010), 405n130 and especially 424n224).

The origin of the idea of, and indeed even the explicit contrast between a church reformata and yet reformanda as applied to the reformed (reformata) churches (according to Mahlmann “a hitherto unheard of claim”, a “break with the tradition [that extended clear] back to Calvin” (424 and 424n224)) was until quite recently thought to lie in the late-17th-century Dutch proto-Pietists of the Nadere Reformatie (“further Reformation”), and in particular Jodocus van Lodenstein (“Such a person of understanding would not have called the Reformed Church reformata, or reformed, but reformanda, or being reformed” (Lodenstein in 1678 (not 1674), as quoted at Busch, 286, and Mahlmann (2010), 387 and 387n24, 424)), where it apparently still does represent a reversal of “the dynamic [established by Jerome Zanchius, ‘The only sixteenth-century theologian . . . to use the two participles . . . in a single context to speak of the problem of reformation in the [supposedly already reformed] church’], so that reformanda [rather than the 16th-century’s relatively achievable reformation] became the ideal, while reformata came to represent a passive, self-satisfied complacency in the face of lax faith and morals” (Busch, 291-292).

But it does not lie there (Mahlmann (2010), 435).  In his groundbreaking article of 2010, already much referenced above, Theodor Mahlmann pushed it—the concept, that is—nearly a century further back, as far as a Reformed 1595 hypothetically, but to a Lutheran 1610 for sure.  Here I list only the relevant Latin (rather than the many vernacular) highlights, though the treatment given this by Mahlmann is nothing if not astonishingly fulsome:

  • 1595 (Bremen)/1596 (Anhalt)/Marburg (1605)/Brandenburg (1613)/Bohemia (1618-1620):  Mahlmann hypothesizes, short of the documentary evidence he is so exceptionally good at uncovering, that the abortive attempt at a “Calvinization” (“Calvinisierung”) of these areas is the background against which Friedrich Balduin was writing in 1610 (Mahlmann, 441-442).
  • 1610:  Friedrich Balduin of Wittenberg, on Mal 1:1, the ultimate source of the very nearly identical Latin claim in Johann Schmidt (1719):  “semper in Ecclesia opus esse Reformatione, quia semper occurrunt corruptelæ morum & doctrinæ” (Mahlmann, 438 ff.; in Schmidt it was est).
  • 1629-1637:  Sweder Schele of the Castle Welbergen:  “In omni facultate et ordine semper reformandum est, hos est ad principia redeundum, in Ecclesia ad Principium verbi Dei divinæ veritatis, in Politia ad ius[,] . . . et . . . in domo ad bonum ordinem domesticum et commodum honestum rei familiaris” (Mahlmann, 434 ff.).
  • 1660:  Johannes Hoornbeecks:  “commune opus reformandae in melius ecclesiae” | “reformantium, & non tantum reformatorum, ut semper debeamus reformare, siquidem reformati esse cupimus, & nomine isto digni, quia studio” (Mahlmann, 426 ff.).  1663:  Johannes Hoornbeecks:  “Omnis reformatus, est & reformans”, etc. (there is more; Mahlmann, 430 ff., on “Hoornbeecks’ program of a reformation of the present Reformed churches . . . on all [of the] levels at which the Reformation of the 16th century was once directed” (430)).
  • 1678 (not 1674, as usually stated, for example by Busch):  Jocodus van Lodensteyn:  “een geleerd Man de Gereformeerde Kerke [(namely Hoornbeecks, above)] genoemt woude hebben niet Reformata of Gereformeerd maar Reformanda of te Reformeeren.  Wat een suy vere Kerek woude dat werden die altijd daar in besig was?  hoe bondig in Waarheyd, hoe heylig in Practijke” (Mahlmann, 424, where, at 424n223, Busch’s quotation of this is corrected).
  • 1696:  Johann Heinrich Heidegger of Zurich:  “Ecclesia quaevis particularis purgatione & reformatione indiget | Sed duplex Ecclesiae Reformatio, ordinaria, & extraordinaria est.  Illa continue esse debet” (Mahlmann, 420 ff.).

These, the concept’s rather innovative and elemental roots in the early 17th-century (or possibly even the very late 16th century) aside, as blossoming on out into

  • the 18th- and 19th-century vernacular, but into
  • Latin aphorisms in the case of Alexander Schweizer in 1847-1848 and 1863and Wilhelm Goeters in 1911 (Mahlmann (2010), 420, a summary of 411 ff.), and into the Latin aphorism that Mahlmann was still ascribing to Barth alone (Mahlmann (2010), 384 ff.) in at least Kuyper in 1892 (Mouthaan, 88) and Bauer in 1893 (Perisho),

it was in fact the 20th-century Reformed theologian Karl Barth who from 1947 greatly popularized the saying that we tend to think of as so ancient today, as amplified with the re-insertion of reformata by Peter Vogelsanger in 1952 (Mahlmann (2010), 420).

Unaware of those occurrences of “ecclesia semper reformanda” in 1892 and 1893, uncovered in 2014 and 2017 respectively (but not yet the earliest such, undoubtedly!), Mahlmann could speak of Barth’s having forgotten that he had been the one to coin the phrase, and note that within a decade or so of 1947 he (Barth) was apparently asking the Catholic theologian Hans Küng—who, following Barth, had called the Catholic Church, too, an “Ecclesia reformanda” in an unpublished lecture delivered at Barth’s invitation in January of 1959, and was later instrumental in getting the phrases “Ecclesia . . . semper purificanda” and “perennem reformationem” inserted into the documents of Vatican II (Mahlmann (2010), 391n43)—if he (Küng) could perchance shed any light on its presumably ancient (perhaps even, as Küng once speculated, its pre-16th-century) origins (since by that time Barth had apparently accepted that his formulation, too, was owed to ancient tradition (in the German of Mahlman (2010) at 388, “scheint Karl Barth . . . gar angenommen zu haben, diese verdanke sich alter Überlieferung”).  It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Peter Vogelsanger, editor-in-chief of the journal Reformatio, was calling it “th[at] ancient [(alt)] Reformed formula of the ecclesia semper reformanda” as early as 1961 (Mahlmann (2010), 394).

For an extensive treatment of the period after Barth (1947-2009), in which, by the way, Vogelsanger’s mistake (?) was often made (for example by Pedersen as late as 2007 (Mahlmann (2010), 404)), see Mahlmann (2010), 384-404.

The medieval precedent for the very phrase does not appear to have been studied extensively (van Lieburg, 44), but Mahlmann cites a “monasteria semper reformanda” (403-404), and Mouthaan, a “semper reformari debet monasterium de hominibus eiusdem professionis, si fieri potest” attributed in 1582 to the canonist Bernard of Parma (d. 1266) (88).  To these van Lieburg adds certain “slogans of the Carthusian Order” (“numquam reformata, quia numquam reformanda (never reformed because it never needed reform) or numquam reformata, quia numquam deformata (never reformed because never deformed)”), and the late medieval goal of a “reformatio in capite et in membris (reformation in head and members)” (van Lieburg, 43).

For the patristic concept of reform in general, see (for starters) the undoubtedly somewhat dated classic by Ladner, below.

Busch, at least, claims to be unaware “of any evidence that a reformanda saying served as a motto or slogan for a person, movement, or institution before 1983, when one appeared on the interim seal of the newly created Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” (289, italics mine, and quoted without any criticism at Mahlmann (2010), 391n44).

A Select Bibliography on the History:

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