July 04, 2023

Ad Fontes

Barry Cooper
Ad Fontes

If you want the pure truth, you have to go back to the source. Today, Barry Cooper considers a rallying cry from the Reformation that calls us ever back again to God’s Word, the source of true wisdom.


At some point in the 1980s, bottled water suddenly became a big thing.

Before that, it would have seemed absurd to say that bottled water was going to become a multibillion-dollar industry. I mean, “Come on, Jeff,” they probably would have said in their high-powered boardroom—assuming the CEO was called Jeff—“if people want to drink water, they already have a tap for that, conveniently located in their very own home, and it’s basically free. There’s no way people are going to pay good money for a bottle of water, any more than they’d pay $5 for a bottle of ‘fresh air’ or—I don’t know—$5 for a cup of coffee.”

But of course, Jeff was right. Because this wasn’t any ordinary bottle of water. This was “mineral water.” So called because it was full of healthy minerals: things like magnesium, calcium, bicarbonate, and sodium. And it had these things naturally because this water was bottled directly at the source—a geologically and physically protected source.

Not only that, but Jeff and friends gave this water a sophisticated, unpronounceable French name, then slapped a label on it that makes you feel like you’re buying champagne rather than good old-fashioned H2O.

There is something to this, of course. I think all of us would much rather drink water from its pure source than drink that same water once it’s traveled a long way downstream and passed through all sorts of potential impurities. Because actually, by that stage, it really isn’t the same water as the clean, refreshing water you find at the source.

I don’t own shares in mineral water, by the way. I’m saying this because “go back to the source” was a crucial slogan in the Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century.

The Latin phrase the Reformers used was ad fontes. Ad meaning “to the,” and fontes meaning “fountainhead.” So it was a sort of rallying cry: “to the fountainhead!” They borrowed it from Renaissance humanism, which encouraged people to get back to the study of classic Greek and Latin literature.

What the Reformers meant was: Let’s get back to the Bible! Scripture is the source, the fountainhead of all true wisdom, because it alone is God’s Word. The traditions and Christian teaching of others since then could of course contain much that was valuable too, but unlike the purity of God’s Word, which is without error, traditions could contain impurities.

When the Reformers talked about going back to God’s Word, they were specifically talking about God’s Word in the original languages, because once Scripture has been translated, there’s always the possibility that poor translation choices can lead to doctrinal errors.

That’s what they believed had happened with the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible which was the church’s official Bible in the sixteenth century, translated into Latin in the fourth century. Ironically enough, the phrase ad fontes actually appears in the Vulgate—in Psalm 42, which talks about a deer thirsting for a source of water as the soul thirsts for God.

Reformers like William Tyndale and Martin Luther had that same thirst. They weren’t content to read someone else’s Latin translation of God’s Word—they wanted to get as close as possible to what was originally written. And that meant going back to the Greek and Hebrew sources.

Once they’d done that, they wanted to produce more accurate translations—not just into Latin, but also into languages that the person on the street could understand. That way, even everyday folks could “get closer to the source” themselves and be less vulnerable to the doctrinal impurities that had crept in over the centuries.

The spiritual effect of ad fontes is incalculable. Erasmus published his Greek and Latin New Testament in 1516, and only a year later Luther posted his explosive Ninety-Five Theses, the very first of which challenged the Vulgate’s mistaken translation of the Greek word for “repentance,” a poor translation  that had produced much confusion regarding the doctrine of justification by faith in the medieval church. And then, just a few years after that, Luther published the New Testament in German, and Tyndale did the same for readers of English. All driven by the desire to allow people—all people, regardless of status—to get closer to the pure source of all wisdom, without it being polluted by the faulty translation or faulty teaching of others.

Jesus Himself and the Apostle Paul taught the same principle of returning to Scripture, in order to keep ourselves as free from error as possible. Jesus, who spoke of Himself as giving “living water” to those who listen, told His hearers at one point, “You are wrong, because you do not know the Scriptures.” And Luke commended people who verified Paul’s teaching by “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were true.”

Ad fontes ought to be our rallying cry too. Today we are blessed by excellent translations of the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of God’s Word. It is easier than ever for us to go back to the source. Sadly, though, many of us are very happy to listen to God’s Word being preached by others, or read books about God’s Word, or listen to podcasts about God’s Word, while at the same time never actually going to the source ourselves.

How much time do we spend in any given week, actually drinking from the source?

Let’s return ad fontes and drink deeply from the source to see whether the things we’re being taught are true.