1As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. 2My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? 3My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” 4These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. 5Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. 7Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me. 8By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. 9I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” 10As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” 11Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
After waking up one morning, a woman told her husband, “I just had a dream that you gave me the most beautiful diamond necklace. What do you think it means?”
The husband thought about it for a moment, smiled, and said, “You’ll know tonight.”
The woman could hardly think of anything else all day and she couldn’t wait to see her husband again that evening. When he finally came home, he took a small package out of his briefcase and gave it to his wife. Delighted, she opened it excitedly to find a book entitled… “The Meaning of Dreams.”
I hope you’re just as excited this month as we study the meaning of three historic mottos of the Presbyterian Church, as well as the scriptures and people that inspired them.
Last week we studied the longest of the three: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei (The church reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God). Today we look at the shortest of the three, just two words in Latin: Ad fontes. In English, it translates as “To the sources” or more literally “To the fountains.”
To understand what that means, however, we turn to todays scripture passage from Psalm 42. The first verse reads, in English, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” But the medieval Latin translation of the Bible, the one most familiar to our 16th century reformers, instead of “for flowing streams” would have read “ad fontes aquarum” or “to the sources of the water.” As the deer is drawn to the sources of the water, so my soul is drawn to you, God.
The idea here (at least in the Latin translation and in the thought of the reformers) is that the deer is drawn not just to any water, but to the source of the water, the origin of the water, the place where the water is the most pure, clean, free flowing and consistent. In the same way, we are drawn to God–not just any instance of God, but specifically to the source of our knowledge and understanding of God, which is the scriptures.
But not just any scriptures, either. The sources of the scriptures are the ancient manuscripts that were written by the hand of the biblical authors, copied by scribes and passed down from generation to generation, first in their original languages of Hebrew and Greek, and then eventually translated into Latin.
For hundreds of years, the Latin translation of the Bible was the official Bible of Western Christianity and the church. And it wasn’t considered a translation, either. It was THE Bible, and it was viewed as superior to the older, original Greek and Hebrew texts because it was newer–much in the same way that you might consider a 2015 medical reference book superior to one from 1915.
But the 15th and 16th century reformers, people like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, and John Calvin–reversed this way of thinking. For some things, like medical manuals, newer might be better. But if you’re trying to repair or restore a classic 1967 Shelby Mustang, the manual for a 2015 Mustang probably isn’t going to help you much. In this case, older is better. The original is better.
When 15th century scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam compared the Latin translation of the Bible in his day to the oldest available Greek manuscripts, he had the following to say:
“One thing the facts cry out, and it can be clear, as they say, even to a blind man, that often through the translator’s clumsiness or inattention the Greek has been wrongly rendered; often the true and genuine reading has been corrupted by ignorant scribes, which we see happen every day, or altered by scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep.”
In other words, if you want an accurate understanding of the Bible, you have to go back in time, back as far as you can, as close as you can get to the time in which it was written. Ad fontes. To the sources.
Incidentally, this is why the Presbyterian church does not teach, and has never taught, that the Bible is inerrant, or free from errors. Even as far back as 500 years ago, Reformed scholars recognized that in every manuscript, every translation, there are bound to be hundreds of variations, omissions, additions, and outright mistakes. Some are small, and some can be quite large–For example, in the medieval Latin translation of the Bible, the Book of Job is a full 20% shorter than most ancient and modern translations.
Some churches teach that the Bible is inerrant “in the original manuscripts.” But the problem here is that we no longer have any of the original manuscripts, and the oldest ones we have are already hundreds of years older than the time in which they were written–and they don’t always agree with each other.
So if Presbyterians don’t believe that the Bible is free from error, what are we left with? We believe that taken as a whole (and that’s important!) the Bible is authoritative, and a reliable guide for our faith and our lives. BUT…and this is a big caveat…for that to work, for the Bible to be authoritative and reliable, we have to study it, and not in isolation. When we study the Bible, in order to understand it we go back to the sources, ad fontes!
We consider ancient manuscripts, the ancient languages, as well as multiple translations in our own language. And we don’t stop there! When we go back to the sources, that means studying the contexts and the cultures in which the Bible was written. It means using all the tools at our disposal, including archeology, linguistics, history, psychology, comparative literature and scientific analysis in order to truly go as far back as we can, as close to those sources as we can. Ad fontes means a commitment to following those sources wherever they may lead, even if what we discover completely changes and overturns what we have previously believed.
There is a trend in many churches today, some of which like to call themselves “Bible Churches,” “Bible believing churches” or “Bible teaching churches.” It is true that in most of these churches, a lot of time is spent studying the Bible. But the method goes something like this: A passage of scripture is read (often a short passage, without considering the larger context of the chapter or book in which it occurs) and then the question is asked “What is God trying to say to us, here, today through this passage of scripture?” And then someone (usually the pastor) gives a definitive answer to that question.
On the surface, it’s not a bad question, and it’s a question that we often ask as well. The problem comes when it’s the only question that’s asked, and when only one “correct” answer is given. I would submit that in order to get to the question “What is God trying to say to us through this passage of scripture” we have to first ask “What was God trying to say to the person who wrote it? To the people who first heard it? Or to the people who decided it was important enough to keep and include in what eventually came to be called “The Bible?” What was going on in their world, and is it similar to anything going on in our world, or is is so completely foreign that we need to proceed with caution before assuming we are the right audience? We should also ask how this passage has been interpreted by others before us, and what the consequences (positive and negative) of that interpretation were?
And then when we finally get to the point of answering what God is saying to us through this passage of scripture, a little bit of humility goes a long way. Because while we might be certain of our answer, chances are that someone else will read the same passage and come to a completely different answer. I came across a bumper sticker the other day that said, “I would agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.” That’s not a good approach to take here. If we have faithfully studied the scriptures, asked all of our questions, gone back to the sources, then I think we can be confident of what we believe God is saying to us, but never absolutely certain. There’s a difference. Confidence allows us to move forward with grace and flexibility, but certainty locks us into dogma. Dogma breeds argument and conflict, religious wars, persecution, and spiritual death.
And so, to avoid rigid dogma and over-confidence in our own interpretations of scripture, we go back to the sources. Ad fontes.
And we go back to today’s scripture passage, Psalm 42. In addition to being the inspiration for one of our mottos, this Psalm is a beautiful prayer that has been set to music in almost every generation and culture that has known it. It has traditionally been dated to the time of King David, but a closer read–as well as some linguistic features of the psalm–places it much later, durig the time of the Babylonian exile, after the fall of Jerusalem and the temple.
The author of the psalm is overwhelemed by memories of the past: “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.” Contrast those joyful shouts, that joyful procession with his current one: “I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” 10As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
This is not an abstract, rhetorical question: The psalmist knows the answer to that question, and it’s not what we might think: Where is your God? Where is it that we come to behold the face of God? If you are an Israelite from the 6th Century BCE, there is only one answer, only one place where God lives: The temple in Jerusalem. The temple that has been destroyed. In the ancient world, when an invading army defeats your army and destroys your temple, it means their god has defeated your god, and has destroyed your religion forever.
This is what drives the psalmist to say “As a deer longs for the source of the water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” We hear those last three words “the living God” and we think, of course he’s the living God. But for the psalmist, this is a bold, revolutionary claim, and one that marks the beginning of Jewish monotheism: My God is living. He did not die. He was not defeated. He is not confined to a temple. And therefore, I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
Ironically, the psalmist has recovered his faith by going back ad fontes–to the source of his faith–not the most recent version, wrapped up in the throngs and festivals of the temple, but rather to the source of the temple and the festivals, to God himself.
So too, the 15th and 16th century reformers–in the dark of the middle ages, when the faith of the masses had become wrapped up in empty rituals and indulgences, shrouded in second-rate Latin translations–they recovered their faith by going back…back to the sources, back to the basics, back to the teachings of the early curch, and back to the God who calls us still today.
How will you answer? How will you go back to the sources? How will you lift our motto “ad fontes” once more?