The Abiding Validity Of Ad Fontes

Just today on social media, I ran across a marvelous quote attributed to Augustine: “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.” Before I did anything with it, however, I thought that I should find the source and get the context. I searched high and low. I searched the sources in Logos (a research tool), Google Scholar, Google Books, and The Gospel Coalition. Trevin Wax quotes this saying and initially I thought he was attributing it to Augustine’s homilies on 1 John 1:7, so I checked the English translation, but it does not appear there.1 Then I checked the Latin text, In epistolam ioannis ad parthos tractatus X in Migne’s Patrologia Latina, but it does not appear there either. So I looked again at Wax’s post and concluded that he is not attributing it to any source either. Indeed, one finds dozens of places, both online and in print, attributing this saying to Augustine, but so far no one offers a source. I initially concluded that the Wikiquote entry is probably correct when it says, “Earliest attribution found in Who Said That?: More than 2,500 Usable Quotes and Illustrations (1995) by George Sweeting. Online sources always attribute the quote to Augustine, but never specify in which of his works it is to be found.” I was stuck until one of my colleagues did a better search of Augustine’s works on Logos, where he found something very similar: “For to believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the gospel.”2 This is not identical to what is typically quoted but it is very close. In this case, working with sources verified the substance of the quotation when it was in doubt.

Perhaps my favorite example of the importance of going to the sources is the attribution to Aquinas of the saying, “Theology is taught by God, teaches God, and leads to God” (theologia a deo docetur, deum docet, et ad deum ducit). This saying is widely attributed to Thomas. Louis Berkhof attributed it to Thomas.3 David F. Wright said, “The acid test for all theology was well expressed by Thomas Aquinas: ‘Theology is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God.’”4 They were in good company; Turretin not only quoted the aphorism and attributed it to Thomas, but even cites a place in his Summa theologiae where it appears (ST, 1a 1.7).5 When one looks at that place in the Summa it does not appear there.6 How did Turretin, who was well read in Thomas, get this wrong?

The first part of my explanation is that Turretin was a dutiful student and that one of his many professors (young Francis travelled widely and studied in a number of schools) gave that reference in a lecture and Turretin memorized the reference. Recently, however, due to the good work of one of my students,7 I learned a second part of the explanation for this widespread error: a confusion of Summae (Summas, if you will). The source of this expression seems to be Alexander of Hales’ Summa, usually referred to as the Summa Halensis.8 Hales (1185–1245) was the founder of the Franciscan school of theology in the University of Paris. Known as the “Doctor Irrefragibilis” (The indisputable teacher),9 he was the primary author of the Summa Halensis, but not the only contributor to it. It seems then as though the source of this saying is not the great Dominican (Thomas), but rather a less well-known Franciscan. Perhaps someone used this expression before Hales. That seems likely, but so far as I know, the saying has not been attributed to anyone specifically prior to him.

However interesting these cases are, what they teach us is the importance of always going back to original sources. This is what the Renaissance humanist slogan ad fontes (to the sources) signifies. The Humanist movement arose, in part, in response to the practice in theology, the arts, and law (perhaps in medicine too) of relying on curated collections of quotations from earlier authorities. In theology this practice is represented by Sic et Non (This and Not This), a textbook created by Peter Abelard (1079–1142) as a student exercise in reconciling apparent contradictions between the fathers and Scripture. The greatest of all the collections, however, were the Sentences (1155–58) of Peter Lombard, which, at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) became the theological textbook of the Western church for most of the next five hundred years.

The Humanists, however, realized that someone had to curate the quotations and that the collections of quotations become a new context for the material being studied. As efficient as they were, the question persisted: What was the original context of the quotation? Consider a mundane example: In the 1970s I was, as they said, “discipled” in using methods adopted from the Navigators. That included Bible memory, which is fine, but the little packets of verses on little cards that we carried around, memorized, and reviewed, became a new context for the verses I was memorizing. I was learning verses, but I was not learning to understand them in their original context. I cannot say how often I later came upon verses that I had already memorized only to realize that the context completely changed my understanding of them.

In certain Reformed circles, “taking every thought captive” is a popular slogan. It is used in reference to the Christian worldview (Weltanschauung), the lens through which reality is interpreted. It is also used in connection to apologetics (i.e., the defense of the faith), but what did it mean in context?

I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!— I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete (2 Cor 10:1–6; Emphasis added).

In context, Paul is doing battle with a group of self-named “Super Apostles” (ὑπερλίαν ἀποστόλων; 2 Cor 11:5; 12:11) for the soul of the Corinthian church. They contrasted their eloquence with his halting speech (1 Cor 1:10–2:16; 4:14–21; 2 Cor 2:14–17; chs. 3–4, 10–11) They were what Luther later called “theologians of glory,” whereas Paul was a theologian of the cross. Judging by what we know from Paul’s canonical correspondence, the “Super Apostles” were arrogant and selling a theology of power and dominion. The post-canonical letters of 1 and 2 Clement (so-called) tell us that the errors of theology and ethics sown by the “Super Apostles” persisted for another century at least. In contrast to the “Super Apostles,” Paul offered the foolishness of the gospel, Christ crucified:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor 2:1–5).

When Paul promises to “take every thought captive,” then, he is not speaking about unbelievers in the world, nor about what Christians are going to do to the unbelieving world (either by apologetics or cultural transformation), but about those in the Corinthian congregation who professed faith but who lived contrary to the law and the gospel. Paul was speaking of disciplining them and their tribe, who had already caused so much trouble within the congregation.

Reading those words in their original context is, in its own way, transformational. They are put in an entirely new light, in their proper light, so that we may understand them as the Spirit and Paul intended. As evangelicals are rediscovering the pre-Reformation church, including the medievals, let them and us not bypass the breakthroughs made for us by the Renaissance which had such a salutary effect in the Reformation.

Notes

  1. Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” in St. Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. H. Browne and Joseph H. Myers, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 464.
  2. Augustine of Hippo, Reply to Faustus the Manichæan, 17.3 in St. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Richard Stothert, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 235. “Undique tergiversaiio vestra contunditur. Aperte dicite non vos credere Christi Evangelio: nam qui in Evangelio quod vultis creditis,quod vultis non creditis, vobis potius quam Evangelio creditis.” J. P. Migne, Patrologia Latina vol. 42 (Paris: Migne, 1960), 312.
  3. Louis Berkhof, Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1932), 39.
  4. David F. Wright, s.v. “Theology,” in Sinclair B. Ferguson and J. I. Packer, ed. New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
  5. Turretin, Summa theologiae, 1a 1.7.
  6. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–97), 2.
  7. Thanks to Noah Berry for his good work on Alexander of Hales.
  8. Lydia Schumacner and Oleg Bychov, A Reader in Early Franciscan Theology: The Summa Halensis (New York: Fordham University Press, 2022), 62. I owe this reference and discovery entirely to Noah Berry.
  9. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church in F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Alexander of Hales.”

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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