At the Gate: Ad Fontes!

Sitting at the gate, I see the importance of going back to the Center if we are to change things on the circumference. One of the clarion calls of the Renaissance was “ad fontes,” a mantra reminding people that change occurs by returning to Sources—first principles, originating causes, etc.

I was recently reminded about this in relation to the renewal of the church. During an online meeting, one of the participants pointed out that our conversation had become focused on institutional renewal. He rightly reminded us that we must look beyond that in order to experience the renewal we need. While by no means ignoring the institutional needs, he invited us into a deeper conversation. We accepted the invitation, and used much of our remaining time talking about “the hunger of the heart” so profoundly expressed by multitudes today.

It is a hunger that emerges from the imago dei. Made in the image of God, we thirst for God as naturally, recurringly, and intensely as a deer thirsts for water (Psalm 42:1-2). In the Christian context we say that we thirst for God “in Christ.” Christ is all and in all (Colossians 3:11). Made by the Word, the excarnate Christ (John 1:3), we follow him into abundant living (John 10:10). Simply put, Christ is the Center, with the circumference finding life in relation to him.

The renewal we see the need for is found in Christ. Jesus is the Gospel, the content, the Word made flesh (John 1:14). In their own ways, the “nones and dones” are telling us this by their separation from institutional religion in general and institutional Christianity in particular. We only think of their departures negatively if we are defined by and stuck in institutional thinking. They are, in fact, the prophets crying out “ad fontes” if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Our friend in the Zoom meeting did us a good service, and without naming him, I thank him. It was a moment to be reminded how easily those of us who have lived our discipleship as “professional Christians” can slip into institutional-renewal talk, without even realizing (I speak only for myself) we are doing so. Of course, wine needs a wineskin; content needs a container. I am not denying that. Neither was our friend. As a historical theologian, I know that movements dissipate when they lack means to sustain them.

But in this post, I want to offer the same reminder that our friend in the meeting offered to us. His words moved me to remember that when Francis of Assisi first heard God’s word to “rebuild my church,” he took it to mean the restoration of the San Damiano church building. It took a deeper look for him to realize it was an “ad fontes” call to return to the Center in order to renew the circumference. He devoted the rest of his life to the exaltation of Christ and the incarnation of Christlikeness. Even as he did this, he carried a broom to clean any building before he preached or taught there. He never downplayed the institution, he only refused to treat it as the main thing.

As a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition, I see the same “ad fontes” spirit in John Wesley, who sent ministers to America with the mission to “offer them Christ,” not make them Methodists. We do well to do the same in our day. It is Christ for whom people hunger. Where and how they experience him is always secondary. Renewal-talk must be “ad fontes” conversation that takes us to Christ.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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