“Reformed and always reforming according to the word of God” is the full phrase that is often used to describe what it means to be a Presbyterian. We change. Our views change, our polity changes, and our theology changes over time. “According to the word of God” is a check on change. We don’t just change for the sake of change but we change in light of the presence of ongoing divine revelation. That is my phrase. Calvin would say that we must be reformed by scripture. More on that later.
So what is the “word of God?” Some would say that the word of God is restricted to the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. Others would further add that the King James Version of those 66 books is the word of God. Others would say that the word of God is the original autographs of these 66 books in the original languages. Unfortunately, we do not have any of the original autographs. We have copies of copies of copies. For a readable and engaging look at how scholars (from the author’s perspective) determine which copies are older than others, I recommend Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. We have a copy in the church library.
Some would say that the word of God is not restricted to the words on the page, but that the Bible contains the word of God. John Calvin (notice the handsome portrait) suggested that the word of God requires the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit who brings these words to the heart of the believer. We also say that Jesus Christ is the word of God. This is a more nuanced view even as it seeks to circle him with the canon by adding “as the scriptures bear witness to him.”How else might we conceive of word of God? John Calvin was a product of the 16th century. We (whether we like it or not) are children of the Enlightenment. A lot has happened since Calvin's day, including the way we look at scripture.
Today, some would say that the word of God is not limited to the Bible or even to Jesus. We see (hear?) the word of God as we examine the atom, study the cosmos, and appreciate nature, art and literature. We seek truth when we discover what it means to be human and use our reason to a good end. The idea is that all truth is God’s truth. The word of God, then, is truth wherever we find it. We might expand that further. Not only is the word of God truth, it is also beauty, love, justice, joy, and the recognition of our own fallibility.
Perhaps there is such a thing as the unified theory of everything. I don’t know it. I cannot say that we will never know it. I cannot say for sure that no one knows it. I know I don’t know it. I, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “see in glass darkly.” So we are always reforming, seeking truth, seeking the word of God.
Reforming is messy. Change is struggle. We don’t agree on what is true. Change involves conflict, yet conflict is not so bad. Conflict can energize our creativity. Sometimes our conflicts turn into battles. I find that distressing, but so far, inevitable.
Yet, sometimes we can reform more peacefully. The Apostle Paul admonished us to “speak the truth in love.” That is a good axiom. Especially, when we realize that the truth we speak may not be true tomorrow and that the truth we speak may not be the whole truth, but our own interpretation of the larger truth, the word of God.