Wikipedia says this about the Latin expression Ad Fontes:
Ad fontes is a Latin expression which means that fundamental research is very important in politics, history and science. Without fundamental research there is no good knowledge about questions. Many people only think about questions as other people think. Ad fontes means that it is important to elaborate and study older documents to have a sound meaning. It translates approximately to "back to the sources."
I am engaged in dialogues on the internet on a regular basis, and it is astonishing how much ignorance and carelessness there is regarding historical theology. Many people are failing to go back "to the sources" to test their paradigms and assumptions. For the most part, people are reading secondary sources uncritically, without checking references in context. On the internet, bibliographic blunders abound!
In my study of Hyper-Calvinism over the past two years, I have uncovered so many historical inacccuracies that it's amazing. I have called them "inaccuracies" to be kind about it. In some cases, it just seems like flat dishonesty. It is not only easy to hunt the bible for proof-texts to confirm our preconceived notions, but it's also possible to read other historical writings and impose our templates on men from the past.
Selective reading and the lack of careful contextual analysis is common, especially when it comes to Calvinistic studies. I have been utterly amazed at how much propaganda and seeming dishonesty there is among so called "Calvinists." Calvin's own writings are overlayed with so much propaganda in the secondary sources and popular literature, that I doubt the church will ever be able to correct the problem. I have some friends online who are making a valiant effort to restore a proper understanding of Calvin, but I tend to doubt it will have much effect in overcoming the massive amount of inaccurate propaganda.
The situation doesn't merely pertain to Calvin, but to other men as well. I was surfing the net about a year ago and saw this on a website (from John G. Reisinger):
"I was taught that Spurgeon considered John Gill a "hyper-Calvinist." Using my computer, I checked every reference that Spurgeon ever made in print about John Gill. There is not a single inference by Spurgeon that Gill was a hyper-Calvinist."
From the sound of it, one might conclude that this guy has thoroughly done his research. Wow! He's checked every reference that Spurgeon ever made in print on his computer! What a thorough amount of research this guy has done! An amazing scholar indeed! Surely we can trust the objectivity of this man's thorough research.
NKJ Proverbs 18:17 The first one to plead his cause seems right, Until his neighbor comes and examines him.
Then one investigates the primary sources and sees different facts. For example, Spurgeon said this about John Gill in his Commenting and Commentaries:
"Gill is the Coryphaeus of hyper-Calvinism, but if his followers never went beyond their master, they would not go very far astray." Commenting and Commentaries (Kregel, 1998), 16.
Clearly Spurgeon respected Gill and his scholarship, but he also clearly calls him the very "Coryphaeus" of hyper-Calvinism. Not only was Spurgeon of the opinion that Gill was hyper, but he was viewed as the leader among them by Spurgeon! One could excuse the bibliographic blunder of the man quoted above if he was willing to correct his error, but he doesn't want to.
I emailed the individual through his webmaster twice a long time ago, but the webmaster got no response from him. The webmaster first responded with a red herring. He wanted to offer me material proving that Gill was not hyper. That's beside the point. My email concerned the opinion of Spurgeon, and not whether or not Spurgeon's opinion was correct. Anyway, they still have yet to correct the error. Quite frankly, they are engaged in propaganda (similar to Tom Nettles work on Gill--his own footnotes to Gill's The Cause of God & Truth refute his thesis in the book By His Grace and For His Glory) rather than thorough scientific investigation into historical theology. If the man bothered to read Curt Daniel's doctoral dissertation on Gill, he would have seen the same reference that I found. My Kregel edition of Spurgeon's work has an index in back that lists every reference to Gill, so it's easy to find. Furthermore, Spurgeon's Commenting and Commentaries is a popular work, so it's not as if the reference is obscure.
This is just a small example of the need to go back "to the sources." Christians are called to think and behave virtuously. Even if we disagree with someone, let us accurately and fairly represent their viewpoint by careful listening and investigation. We are supposed to be historically honest as well, especially if we are positioned as teachers in the church.
Historical theology is very important for the Christian. We need to study the historic development of doctrines to have a thorough understanding. This will help us become more epistemologically self-aware. Many believers are not aware of the fact that their thinking is biased by certain presuppositions. They are not conscious of the filters and grids through which they interpret literature. We are shaped and influenced by the culture around us, even through the secondary sources that we read. These secondary sources need to be tested, just as our own filters and grids need to be tested. One of the ways to do this is by engaging in the study of historical theology.
Trying to wade through all of this material can be very overwhelming. We cannot possibly learn all of it, but we can make an effort to study what is more important as time permits. Let's be well grounded in the essentials of the faith, and understand how they developed historically.
God is leading me to study the history and theology of Calvinism as you can tell, so my studies are focused on particular subjects. Even though the focus seems narrow, the implications for the rest of theology are also within my view. I am becoming more self-aware of my biases and preconceived notions. I am learning how these preconceived notions influence my interpretive process. I can see how others are being influenced by subterranean ideas that they are not yet conscious of. It makes me want to encourage them to go back "to the sources" and investigate ideas historically. It makes me want to cry out "Ad Fontes!" to my fellow Christians.