Friday, July 08, 2005

Ad Fontes

One of my goals this summer is to read two of the foundational philosophical texts in the Western canon - Boethius' "The Consolation of Philosophy" and Plato's "Timaeus." I finished Boethius the other day, and frankly, was disappointed. For a book which is said to have had an incalculable influence on Medieval philosophy and theology, I expected some lightning and thunder. Perhaps at least one "aha!" moment. Alas, the wisdom offered the imprisoned Boethius by the personified Philosophy was mostly commonplace reflection on the futility of being happy with earthly things, with vain triumphs, and with a life free of trouble. Philosophy's advice is merely an echo of Proverbs 4:7:

"Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding."

Boethius is considered to be the last of the "Church Fathers," although I found nothing particularly Christian in the "Consolation." It seemed more of a last gasp of pagan wisdom, influenced by Christian monotheism. In any case, I am hoping for better things from Plato, who has never disappointed me. Why is it that the "Timaeus" is never in the cheaper versions of Plato's works? One must buy the Loeb version, which I did this morning, or Edith Hamilton's large and expensive edition. I'll report more on the "Timaeus" later this summer. I wait with baited breath!

The above-mentioned seminal works were the fountains of Medieval theology, that is, they inspired the Christians of the pre-Reformation period to such an extent, that a "great thaw" occurred (to borrow the art critic Kenneth Clark's phrase). The Dark Ages (ca.550-1050 A.D.) grew progressively lighter with the discovery of texts from the classical world (for which we must offer gratitude, hard as it is lately, to Islamic civilization for preserving the works of Plato and Aristotle). Too many evangelicals believe that the Reformation emerged from a vacuum, with Luther and Calvin, etal., "discovering" the Bible and the gospel as if they had found manna laying about. More accurately, the Reformation was a further outgrowth of the great thaw which occurred in the 12th century. It was a similar movement in that the Reformation sought its own "fountains" - no longer the works of Plato or Boethius, but the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. We call this impulse "ad fontes," meaning "to the sources."

"For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light" (Psalm 36:9).

This impulse to return to the sources blesses the church in that it leads us to the Holy Spirit, who inspired (breathed out) the Bible, and as the "pneuma/ruach", the wind or breath of God, continues to lead desiccated souls to Christ, who is himself the ultimate fountain of living waters (cf. John 4:13-14). The fountain is ever-flowing, refusing to be stagnant, and washes away our idolatrous traditions. Which is why when we say "ad fontes!", we are also saying, "sola Scriptura!"


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