Ad fontes: Looking Backward to Go Forward

This opening post marks the relaunch of my blog, Moving from the seminary world to the university world, calls for a new beginning.

So I’m calling my blog: “Ad fontes—Looking back to go forward: Thoughts and Reflections.” The thoughts and reflections will be on all kinds of topics, primarily relating to education, theology, leadership and culture.

The Renaissance

Ad fontes is an obscure but an important little phrase; a Latin expression which means, “[back] to the sources,” or more literally, “to the fountainhead.” This phrase was the cry of the Renaissance humanists of the sixteenth century. The motto called a generation to the renewed study of ancient learning—particularly that of the Greek and Latin classics. The motto captures that age’s hunger to recover something old that had been lost that many saw was vital to the rebirth of learning and civilization.  It led to a new era of discovery, a revival of classical learning and wisdom. The word “renaissance” is French for “rebirth” and so it is appropriate that such a movement focused on returning to ancient sources in this way.

Ad fontes was famously used by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), the greatest of the humanists, in his work on learning entitled De Ratione Studii. In it he wrote, “above all, one must hasten to the sources [ad fontes] themselves, that is, to the Greeks and ancients.” In 1516, Erasmus demonstrated his commitment to this principle and published the first edition of his Greek New Testament with Latin translation, Novum Instrumentum, in Basle. This was not only the first time that the Greek text of the New Testament had been printed (thanks to Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press), but it gave the world a “revised and improved” New Testament.

In the first edition of this work, Erasmus wrote a letter of dedication to Pope Leo X. In the letter Erasmus indicated that his work aimed to allow Christendom to “draw from the fount rather than the muddy ponds and rivulets. And so I have revised the whole New Testament (as they call it) against the standard of the Greek original.”

The Reformation

For a thousand years, the Latin Vulgate had been the authoritative text of the Bible but due to the work of humanists like Erasmus its accuracy was challenged.  Erasmus suggested that it needed correcting. This not only brought new attention to the Bible and the church fathers, but it prompted scholars like the translator William Tyndale to learn the Biblical languages. And thus Renaissance humanism helped lay the groundwork for the Reformation.

This little Latin principle was also used by the Reformers, for they too wanted the church to rediscover something precious that had been lost. They wanted to turn the church back to the gospel, back to the Bible, and ultimately back to Jesus, for these were the key sources of the Christian faith and thus of the church’s vitality. These were, so to speak, the “title-deeds” of Christianity. Returning to these ancient spiritual sources would bring strength and renewal to the church and help it go forward. And so, recursus ad fontes “back to the sources” became the watchword of both movements.

The Bible

It is worth commenting on where the humanists and reformers first found the phrase, even before Erasmus first employed it. Our best evidence is that it was used by Spanish humanists who found the expression in the Psalms. The phrase actually occurs in a version of the Latin Vulgate for Psalm 41.2 (which would be Psalm 42.1 in modern English translation). That verse reads in the ESV, “as a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” In the Vulgate it is:  quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus. What is worth noting is that in this psalm, God himself is the fountain of living waters. Or as another psalm states it, his life and love is the river that makes glad the city of God (Ps. 46:4). Or as the New Testament says, Jesus is the well of living water (John 4). That is, the ultimate source of vitality is found in him!

Ad fontes For Today

There are times when schools, churches, cultures and nations lose their bearings. We are missing perspective and need to regain our wisdom, sanity, and vitality. In our day there is a hunger to recover something that has been lost. A rebirth is needed, an awakening, a revival on multiple levels. Foundational principles need to be retrieved. You can see this need in the church, but you can see it elsewhere—in the culture, in educational institutions, even in nations and civilizations.

Growing numbers of thought-leaders are responding to this sense by urging a fresh return to the fountain, which means going back and recovering something vital, returning to deeper roots. The French had another word for this, ressourcement, which was often associated with the renewal of theology through a return to the authoritative sources of the Christian faith. It involved rediscovering their truth and meaning and being resourced by them in order to meet the critical challenges of our age. My blog is written with the hope that we may be so resourced, and that this movement of retrieval may flourish. That out of it may come strength to the university that I have the privilege of leading, and a renewal of faith and courage for this generation.  May God use this feeble effort and guide us to that end.

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