"The Hermeneutic of Reform": A Historical Analysis

By O'Malley, John W. | Theological Studies, September 2012 | Go to article overview

"The Hermeneutic of Reform": A Historical Analysis


O'Malley, John W., Theological Studies


IN THE WEST FEW IDEAS have enjoyed a longer, more complex, and, in many instances, more disruptive history than reform. Expressed through a number of terms, of which the most direct and obvious is the Latin reformatio, it has traditionally been defined as mutatio in melius, change for the better. Etymologically speaking, reformatio, whose English equivalents are both reform and reformation, indicates a re-forming or a restructuring of something already in place. Thus, although change is at its core, reform presupposes continuity with what has gone before. It is not creatio ex nihilo.

This definition presupposes, as well, that reform entails a self-consciously undertaken effort within an institution to effect change. It is thus different from changes that come about because of decisions taken by others. Few events, for instance, more radically changed the Christian church than Constantine's recognition of it and his granting it a privileged status in his empire. Yet the changes his decisions effected, which church leaders welcomed as "for the better," are never described as reform.

The definition also implicitly differentiates reform from changes that come about in a gradual fashion without deliberate decision making to effect the final result. Over the course of time, institutions, for instance, have a tendency toward greater sophistication in procedures. The change is incremental, as when a business bit by bit adds more staff and eventually opens branch offices. Or, to take a concrete example from the sphere of ideas: renaissance was first employed in the 15th century to indicate a literary rebirth, then got applied to designate a shift in standards in painting, sculpture, and architecture, and finally was applied to a whole period of history. Rather than call such changes reform, we tend to call them developments, about which I will say more later.

Although the synonyms, quasi-synonyms, and euphemisms for reform have slightly different nuances, they express the same idea of change for the better. They too have played such important roles in cultural and political history that it is almost impossible to speak of the course of Western civilization without employing them. I refer to words such as renewal, renovation, restoration, revival, rebirth, and renaissance. To that list can be added, with less cogency, terms such as correction, emendation, and improvement. (1) Important though these terms are, reform remains the most basic and most frequently invoked in almost every sphere of human activity to indicate deliberate efforts undertaken within an institution to improve the status quo.

Important as the idea of reform has been in secular history, it has been even more important in the history of Christianity. (2) It cuts, after all, to the very heart of the Christian message, which is a call to repentance, conversion, and reform of life. Without rebirth, according to John's Gospel, there is no entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Reform was, therefore, originally directed to the individual Christian. Repent! Change your ways! Nonetheless, it early on began to be applied also to the church as an organized social body and was thus launched on its impressive ecclesiastical trajectory. Councils, both local and ecumenical, emerged by the third and fourth centuries as the most unquestioned institutions responsible for reform.

Despite its importance for Christian history, scholarship on reform has been notably sparse. (3) Only two major monographs have ever explicitly dealt with it. Both were published in the 1950s, on the eve of Vatican II. They remain to this day the classic studies. Gerhart B. Ladner's The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers appeared in 1959. (4) It dealt almost exclusively with the idea's impact on personal asceticism and monastic discipline in late antiquity. Especially significant in it is Ladner's insistence on the multivalent character of the term: its meaning in any given instance depends on concrete circumstances. …

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