“Ecclesia semper reformanda”: Five hundred years of the Reformation

March 16, 2017

In reflection on this five hundred year anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, specifically Martin Luther’s momentous challenge to the Roman Catholic Church, my thoughts center on the ubiquity of THE Word. Of course, by THE Word I mean, the scriptural text, the Bible, and yet not just the good book itself, but the “word of God, living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4.12). Growing up, my friends and I would always delve into childhood antics—playing the dozens, hand-clap games, telling tall tales. Occasionally a word spoken, sung, or expressed (in other words, somebody talking smack) would require authorization. That is when THE Word became a necessity. Yet, this was no problem, for no matter whose mama’s house we happened to be in, a Bible was invariably laying near. And once we put our hand on the Bible and declared our truth, it was so. We, as children, could not have articulated it then, but instinctively we knew that speaking in faith represented the inner testimony of the Spirit revealed by the external sign of the Scriptures, just as John Calvin taught. But back then, we would have put it simply like this: You don’t mess with THE Word.

Early in the sixteenth century, a number of pioneering thinkers awakened to the dawn of the availability of ancient texts in original languages. Ironically, the conquering march of Ottoman Turkish Islam against the Greek East reacquainted Western Christendom with long lost New Testament manuscripts. Humanists like Erasmus of Rotterdam provided new translations of the Bible previously rendered solely by the church in common Latin. This revolutionary act spanned subsequent vernacular bible translation breakthroughs for example in the German by Luther, French by Pierre Olivétan, and English by William Tyndale. In fact, we Anglophones owe a great deal to Tyndale, who gave his life to ensure the availability of English bibles, the most notable of which has traditionally been the King James Version. And whatever would we have done without the phrases “Eat, drink, and be merry” or “the powers that be?”

In short, the Protestant reformers’ almost frenetic attention to THE Word has left a powerful legacy. This power lies not in a onetime, long gone Reformation, but an ongoing process of continual reassessment and development of new biblical criticisms, new ways of reading the texts. Recent decades have seen womanist, feminist, liberation, queer, disability theologies emerge from such new biblical methodologies, lending credence to the tradition of ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (reformed church always reforming).1 This is THE Word alive, reflecting the inner witness of believers whose precious lives matter to God’s promise of grace, hope, and transformation. We are thus reminded, after five hundred years, that for Christians, authority is found in THE Word made flesh revealed to us in Scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit. Each generation confirms, challenges, even revises rich church traditions and doctrines, experiences and theologies, rationalizations and understandings. Thus, we continually wrestle, twist, turn and debate THE Word remaining, paradoxically, as Luther famously stated at the Diet of Worms, “bound by the Scriptures.” Semper reformanda.

About the Author
  • Tamara E. Lewis is Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University where she teaches courses on the Christian Heritage, African American Church History, and Methodist Church History. She received the Ph.D. in 2014 from Vanderbilt University. She is an ordained elder in full connection in the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church and has pastored churches in Nashville, TN. Prior that time she was an editor for Abingdon Press, an imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House. Rev. Dr. Lewis writes about religion and race in the seventeenth century.

  1. Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement: Modern Christianity from 1454 to 1800, Vol. II, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012), 105. 

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  1. I too thank the Lord for the Reformation. I was a Catholic but did not read the Bible. Introduced to reading the Bible was revolutionary to me. It has opened up my life to see God’s word each time I read it. So I too say, “Ecclesia semper reformanda.”