Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Ad Fontes: To The Sources

In my recent interactions on the blog with a Catholic apologist, I was reminded again of the importance of ad fontes. The phrase means: “to the sources”. With the appearance of the Greek text of the New Testament, ad fontes was a strong cry during the Reformation period.

My profound respect for people like James White, David King, Eric Svendsen, Jason Engwer, - is their ad fontes work. It takes time to do the work to look up and exegete Biblical texts, Church fathers, and historical accounts. It is amazing to read the work that these men have put forth.

In my own studies and interactions with people, my primary emphasis has been the Reformation period. I began interacting with various critics of the Reformation period- which drove me to do ad fontes work. The charge,“ Luther said…” in my thinking becomes “What did Luther really say, and why did he say it?” I can’t begin to describe how much time, money, and energy has gone into researching various quotes.

Here are a few examples of some ad fontes fruits from my scrutiny of a Romanist's work:

1.. Quoting Luther on the Immaculate Conception

This example is from a previous blog entry, and the quote was given by a Catholic apologist in a recent blogback. He still insists Luther was devoted to the Virgin Mary and believed in Mary’s immaculate conception. As proof, he used this Luther quote:

"In his conception all of Mary's flesh and blood was purified so that nothing sinful remained. Thus Isaiah is correct in saying, 'There was no deceit in his mouth' [53:9]. Each seed was corrupt, except that of Mary." [footnote 23; p. 381: "Disputation on the Divinity and Humanity of Christ," February 28, 1540. WA 39/2:107.8-13."] See:"

But the context of this quote doesn’t say this at all. It says at the conception of Christ, Mary’s flesh and blood was purified. Luther presents an argument and a response:

Argument: Every man is corrupted by original sin and has concupiscence. Christ had neither concupiscence nor original sin. Therefore he is not a man.

Response: I make a distinction with regard to the major premise. Every man is corrupted by original sin, with the exception of Christ. Every man who is not a divine Person [personaliter Deus], as is Christ, has concupiscence, but the man Christ has none, because he is a divine Person, and in conception the flesh and blood of Mary were entirely purged, so that nothing of sin remained. Therefore Isaiah says rightly, "There was no guile found in his mouth"; otherwise, every seed except for Mary's was corrupted.”

Luther makes this point often- that at the birth of Christ, the Holy Spirit performed a blessed miracle. For instance in a Sermon specific about the birth of Christ given on Christmas Day, Luther said: “…[H]e was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and God so filled the flesh, body, and soul of the virgin Mary with the Holy Spirit in such a way, that no sin was present in her conception and carrying of the Lord Jesus Christ.” [Sermons of Martin Luther vol. 5, 135].

2. Luther praised Mary in Luther's last Sermon

Here’s another one:

In fact, Martin Luther "praised" Mary and said that she should be honored in his very last sermon at Wittenberg.”

He is correct that Luther mentions Mary in his last Wittenberg sermon. Luther did not say or imply though that “Mary should be honored.” Luther’s tone is quite sarcastic, and his main point is that Christ alone should be worshiped. Luther mocks those who would call upon Mary or venerate her. Luther insists that those who seek Christ through Mary do so by the use of “reason,” and “reason is by nature a harmful whore.” Here is the context from LW 51:375-376:

Therefore, when we preach faith, that we should worship nothing but God alone, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we say in the Creed: “I believe in God the Father almighty and in Jesus Christ,” then we are remaining in the temple at Jerusalem. Again, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” “You will find him in a manger”. He alone does it. But reason says the opposite: What, us? Are we to worship only Christ? Indeed, shouldn’t we also honor the holy mother of Christ? She is the woman who bruised the head of the serpent.  Hear us, Mary, for thy Son so honors thee that he can refuse thee nothing. Here Bernard went too far in his “Homilies on the Gospel ‘ Missus est Angelus .’ ”  God has commanded that we should honor the parents; therefore I will call upon Mary. She will intercede for me with the Son, and the Son with the Father, who will listen to the Son. So you have the picture of God as angry and Christ as judge; Mary shows to Christ her breast and Christ shows his wounds to the wrathful Father. That’s the kind of thing this comely bride, the wisdom of reason cooks up: Mary is the mother of Christ, surely Christ will listen to her; Christ is a stern judge, therefore I will call upon St. George and St. Christopher. No, we have been by God’s command baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, just as the Jews were circumcised. Therefore, just as the Jews set up all over the land their own self-chosen shrines, as if Jerusalem were too narrow, so we also have done. As a young man must resist lust and an old man avarice, so reason is by nature a harmful whore. But she shall not harm me, if only I resist her. Ah, but she is so comely and glittering. That’s why there must be preachers who will point people to the catechism: I believe in Jesus Christ, not in St. George or St. Christopher, for only of Christ is it said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”; not of Mary or the angels. The Father did not speak of Gabriel or any others when he cried from heaven, “Listen to him.”

William Cole in his study of Luther’s Mariology provides the example of Bishop Daly of Ardagh who similarly used Luther’s words about Mary from the last Wittenberg sermon to prove Luther lifelong devotion to Mary. Cole indicates that Daly’s study was an example of a “simplistic, uncritical, one-sided evaluation[s] of Luther’s Marian stance…” (Marian Studies XXI, 98-99).

3. The letters of Calvin and Melanchthon

The final example really isn’t an example yet of ad fontes scrutiny. Recently, I saw this alleged dialog between Calvin and Melanchthon:

It is indeed important that posterity should not know of our differences; for it is indescribably ridiculous that we, who are in opposition to the whole world, should be, at the very beginning of the Reformation, at issue among ourselves.[in Patrick F. O'Hare, The Facts About Luther, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, revised edition, 1987 (orig. Cincinnati, 1916), 293

All the waters of the Elbe would not yield me tears sufficient to weep for the miseries caused by the Reformation.[in John L. Stoddard, Rebuilding a Lost Faith, New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1922, 88 / Epistles, Book 4, Ep. 100]

The Calvin letter is easy enough to find- its from November 28, 1552, and can be found in the Selected works of John Calvin Vol. 5, p.383-384 (Electronic Version, Ages Digital Sotware). The letter covers a few different subjects. Calvin's alleged plea for unity is only one aspect of it. One wonders if the response from Melanchthon was really directed toward the Calvin quote above. Who knows? Without the context of Melanchthon's response, we're at the mercy of Stoddard (or perhaps even O'Hare- i'm not sure where Stoddard got the quote from- I don't have his book- but the quote above is in O'Hare's book as well).

Melanchthon’s response, doesn’t seem to be available in English. I’ve been looking for it. I find the response far too suspicious, I have to see it myself. I’ve currently read three different lengthy reviews on the exchanges between Calvin and Melanchthon. I found this interesting fact about Melanchthon’s reply to Calvin’s letter of 11/28/1552-

When Meleanchthon failed to respond to this letter, Calvin sent yet another appeal for understanding on this issue [free will and predestination]. By then, however, the most pressing issue had become the Lord’s Supper.”

Source: Karin Maag (ed.), Melanchthon in Europe (Michigan: Baker Books, 1999), 32.

Perhaps the reason I can’t find a response to Calvin’s letter is because there wasn’t one. Who knows? Catholic apologists often don't do the ad fontes work before posting stuff like this. It’s up to us to do it. I've come to realize that there are far too few studies on Melanchthon available, so who knows if i'll ever be able to track down the context.

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