Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Perspicuity (Clarity) of the Bible

By Dave Armstrong 

[originally uploaded on 10 February 2000; slightly modified on 8 December 2011]

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I contend that there ought to be some criteria for falsifiability with regard to this crucial element of sola Scriptura - itself a pillar of Protestant ecclesiology and its conception of Christian authority. Lacking that, I charged (in my earlier paper) that few things could be conceived as more fatal to the position than thousands of competing, feuding denominations, where - sadly - much error must be present, according to the laws of contradiction. It seems simple enough, to an "outside" observer, I think. If this state of affairs does not cast serious doubt on the principle, what, pray tell, does? Or is it claimed that there is no possible disproof, in which case we are dealing with a pure fideism not amenable to rational examination in the first place.

I would contend, however, that fundamentalism flows from the principles inherent and fundamental to "classic Protestantism" (basically Calvinism, or Lutheranism before Luther died): as far as their notion of authority and individualism goes, in light of the espousal of private judgment and absolute primacy of conscience as the formal principles in Protestantism.

This is precisely why sects started proliferating wildly - to Luther's great chagrin -, as soon as he set the wheels in motion: some even denigrating him as a traitor, compromiser, "half-papist" (Calvin), etc. He himself despised this tendency, yet apparently failed to comprehend the organic causal relationship between his sola Scriptura and perspicuity and private judgment and the fruit which they very quickly produced. Such in the blindness of men who will countenance no authorities higher than themselves. Even popes, of course, are altogether subject to received precedent and conciliar consensus, but Luther was truly free to create whatever form of Christianity he so desired - and call it God's will (therefore, not solely his own). Thus, he was a "Super-Pope," a term I like to use to graphically drive this point home. And I mean it quite literally.

In the final analysis the Protestant individual (no matter how educated, nuanced, sophisticated) is left on his own to determine doctrinal, ecclesiological, liturgical, even moral orthodoxy. He is the final arbiter - by definition. He may be familiar with Church history and proper hermeneutics, and may have read the complete sermons and commentaries of Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, and James White, but he still is not ultimately subject to any authority higher than himself. He will (no doubt) say, "the Bible is my authority!" But it must immediately be understood that this, in turn, reduces to his interpretation of the Bible. He can disagree with any expositor if he so chooses. He is truly the master of his own destiny. This is Renasissance nominalism and atomistic humanism come to fruition, and Western Civilization has been increasingly reaping the tragic consequences ever since.

No doubt fundamentalists think that Holy Scripture alone is more than enough "ordinary means." Who needs theologians and Church history (so they would opine)? It is highly important that people realize that indeed the "unlearned" are also able to attain "sufficient understanding" in this mythological scenario (Luther's famed "plowboy"). This is the root, in my humble opinion, of the radical individualism, a-historicism that runs rampant in Protestantism.

Protestants and Catholics differ as to the causes for this state of affairs. They usually say it is sin. I say it is sin, too, but also, the fatal flaws in the principles of Protestantism itself. As (I believe) Francis Schaeffer said (or taught, at any rate): "ideas have consequences." These are some of the consequences of Protestantism. The Catholic Church can't be blamed for Protestant problems of rampant sectarianism, disunity, and division: severely condemned in Holy Scripture, and a manifest Achilles' Heel in that system. All they can do is try to prove that such glaring deficiencies neither flow from the system itself, nor prove fatal to it, as a sort of reductio ad absurdum. Yet at every turn, Protestant polemicists (especially of the anti-Catholic variety) will blame the Catholic Church as an institution for the shortcomings of its members and adherents, real, or so-called. That's what I call "log-in-the-eye disease."

What is the "visible church" in Protestantism, pray tell? Note that an "invisible church" is not referred to, but a "visible" one. So where is this "church?" Where does it reside? How can it trace itself back to the Apostles, in unbroken succession? Who are its bishops? Obviously, it is preserved from error and cannot defect, so please identify this "church" for me, if you would. Is it Presbyterianism? Which branch, and how does one determine which one? Is it the Reformed Church? Which branch, and how does one determine which one? What is its form of government? What is its view of baptism (I wonder particularly)? On and on I could go. 

What causes fundamantalism? It can't be, e.g., merely American rugged individualism or pragmatism, since  the Anabaptists adopted radical individualism and "civil disobedience" in 16th-century Europe. The inner contradiction of Protestantism was there from the beginning. The heart of it is the disjunction between Luther's "Here I stand (with Bible, conscience and 'plain reason')" and the State Church he set up in reaction to the anarchy of the Peasants' Revolt in 1525, which he himself played a key role in stirring up. Calvin also set up an autocratic State Church. But State Churches do not square with the primacy of the conscience and the individual. 

Some Protestants retained the State Church model in some fashion (e.g., Anglicans, European Lutherans, early American Puritans, to a large extent); others rejected it and adopted separationism (Anabaptists, Mennonites, Quakers, Baptists, congregationalists, Methodists and many lesser denominations). All these historical factors can't be dismissed as if they are of no import. Things do not just happen for no reason. Protestants can yell "sin, sin" as the answer-all, but that doesn't easily explain differential histories of diverse groups. One must take into consideration ideas also.

This was how I stated my central thesis later on in my paper:
    The doctrine of baptism in particular, as well as other doctrinal disputes mentioned above, illustrate the irresolvable Protestant dilemma with regard to its fallacious notion of perspicuity. Again, the Bible is obviously not perspicuous enough to efficiently eliminate these differences, unless one arrogantly maintains that sin always blinds those in opposing camps from seeing obvious truths, which even a "plowboy" (Luther's famous phrase) ought to be able to grasp. Obviously, an authoritative (and even infallible) interpreter is needed whether or not the Bible is perspicuous enough to be theoretically understood without help.
My argument is essentially one of degree, plausibility, and analogy. I was arguing, in effect, that if it is true, then wouldn't there be any appreciable level of success in creating doctrinal unity? If this is a preferable principle compared to the dogmatic, papal, conciliar authority of the Catholic Church, shouldn't we expect of it some improvement and success in result

Obviously, Martin Luther himself expected as much, because he was very distraught at the scandalous and ridiculous sectarianism near the end of his life (along with the ever-despairing Melanchthon, very much so). He clearly thought that since he had "brought in the new Evangel," all would be hunky-dory. People - liberated from the "Roman yoke" - would be free to discover all this "new" biblical truth, just as Dr. Luther had. Fat chance . . . Thus Luther shows himself incredibly, extraordinarily naive as to human nature, among many other shortcomings.

Yes, sin is clearly a factor in any human affairs, yet to say it is the main reason for hundreds of denominations (rather than a flaw in principle in whole or in part) is a bit much to take. Conversely, I contended that hundreds of denominations didn't cause one to be suspicious of this system, then what scenario would do so? That gets back to the issue of falsifiability, briefly alluded to above. It isn't so much that the Bible is unclear per se, or that if largely clear, all differences would vanish. That is too simplistic in the other direction. In the very next sentence I wrote:
    The Bible is indeed more often than not quite clear when approached open-mindedly and with a moral willingness to accept its teachings. I assume this myself, even as a Catholic.
Rather, my point was that what I called the "sin argument" was absurdly simplistic as an explanation for  denominations and disagreements on several arguably "central" doctrines. And the multiplicity of denominations do indeed render the view highly implausible (if the argument is understood as I intended it, and as I elaborate upon it presently). 

In my related paper, "Dialogues on the Perspicuity (Clearness) of Scripture," - where I lay out my thesis in much greater depth - , I stated:
    The problem isn't that "the other guy is blinded by sin....", it is that we all are blinded by original sin and are thus incapable of establishing a real unity without a central organizing impetus in the Church.
What is key is to realize that something has gone radically awry in a system which can countenance and rationalize away such astonishing relativism and "ecclesiological anarchy" and pretend that when all is said and done it is still "one" invisible system ("church") of "mere Christianity," and consistent with biblical notions of a hierarchical, indivisible, visible, apostolic Church. 

There were 200 versions of "This is My Body" within 60 years of the 95 Theses. Imagine even trying to sit under a tree and dreaming up 50 versions, let alone 200! Five major camps, which differ concerning the central rite of initiation into the Christian faith, baptism, is quite sufficiently troubling enough. So many simply deny that baptism is "central." But Luther certainly wouldn't have done that. He thought baptism regenerated the person receiving it. And so forth. Lutherans (with Luther and Melanchthon's approval) drowned Anabaptists for denying this, and for not baptizing infants. The system always breaks down irreparably.

The exact number of denominations doesn't matter; it is the demonstration that the principles underlying the Protestant system clearly haven't worked, and cannot work. There was always supposed to be "one faith, one baptism . . . " Even having two contradictory beliefs on baptism is scandalous and unbiblical already. There was only one received doctrine, or "deposit of faith." Not 2, not 5, not 15, or many hundreds. The error starts beyond one. God doesn't like falsehood. This is a no-brainer.

According to the Apostle Paul, there is a visible, institutional, doctrinal unity, and one Church; one received doctrine. So JWs and Mormons claim this, as well as Catholics. One must then consider their competing claims in turn and decide which has the best case. But this is not so much a proof for Catholicism, as it is a disproof of Protestantism (i.e., as superior and more "biblical" than Catholicism).Denominationalism is condemned repeatedly in the Bible, and viewed as a hallmark of the heresies and those outside the true Christian Faith.

Are Protestants to pessimistically conclude that the unity which was so important to Jesus and Paul is impossible, because their man-made denominational and doctrinal structures simply will not permit it, given the sinfulness of man and his propensity for clinging to dead, crusty, false traditions of men? This is part and parcel of my argument: if a system produces something which is clearly contrary to Holy Scripture (in fact, blatant, rebellious sin rationalized and justified), then at some point the system itself must be questioned. But many Protestants want to place all the blame yet again on man's sin, as if that explains everything. They won't consider at all any critique which casts any doubt whatsoever on the foundational premises of Protestantism. They will hold to those either in sheer blind faith, or because the alternates of Catholicism or Orthodoxy are unthinkable - therefore Protestantism is retained, despite the host of difficulties manifest within it (in all its factions, to more or less degrees).

Man's sin and rebelliousness make an institutional Church with real, binding authority necessary, in order to maintain the doctrinal oneness and unity which is both commanded and assumed in Holy Scripture. It's very simple: one can often find things in the Bible by oneself, with adequate study aids, and (hopefully) some basic background as to hermeneutics and exegesis. I do this now, and have done it for years. This is, of course, the theme of my website, and my upcoming book (A Biblical Defense of Catholicism). I've never been disappointed or "stumped" when studying Holy Scripture. It is always a glorious shining light, and unambiguous. 

The difference lies in the ultimate authority, or formal principle of authority. The Catholic, when completing such a study, will want to know if his conclusions are in line with those of the Church, and with what Christians have believed for 2000 years. In this way, doctrinal unity and historical continuity with the Apostles and the Church of the Ages can be maintained, and the relativism and sin-influenced individualism avoided.

So. e.g., take sola fide (faith alone). Even Protestant apologist Norman Geisler admits that this had not been taught from the time of Paul to Luther (Alister McGrath also stated basically the same thing). For the Catholic, that is decisive in and of itself, because there is no lineage or apostolic succession. 

Thus, it must be a corruption of the apostolic deposit, rather than a legitimate development of doctrine, since God has promised us that the Church can never defect from the faith (Matthew 16:18; implied in many other passages). And of course, we can easily refute the notion from the Bible itself and the interpretation of the Fathers. There are dozens of Protestant beliefs which lack this historical pedigree as well. 

To reiterate briefly, then, my thesis: it is not so much that Scripture is so unclear and esoteric that it is an utter mystery and an undecipherable "code" which only Holy Mother Church can break, and which no individual can possibly understand. Rather, the Church is required to speak authoritatively as to what Holy Scripture teaches, just as it spoke authoritatively with regard to what books were to be included in Scripture. 

In both instances, Holy Scripture is inherently what it is: God's inspired, inerrant, infallible written revelation, but human error, sin, and inability to achieve unity of belief on the basis of individualism made the teaching Church absolutely necessary. It is the principle of private judgment to the exclusion of a necessary, binding, ecclesiastical teaching authority which is radically unbiblical, blatantly contrary to the practice of the Church in the patristic period - all the way up to the Protestant Revolt, and obviously a failure in practice.

It's like any acceptance of authority: it won't work if we are blinded by a closed mind and a prideful, self-centered will (compounded by the level of individual ignorance or prior misinformation). That is true of any teaching system, including Catholicism. But that doesn't, of course, disprove the Catholic system. It is not private judgment per se which leads one to accept Catholicism; it is precisely the opposite: it is yielding up one's private judgment in the act of recognizing the Church for what it is: the spiritual authority ordained by God. One can do this reasonably by applying historical criteria, just as Christians have always done.

In this respect, apostolic and patristic Christianity was much more analogous to Old Testament Judaism, than to, say, Greek philosophy, with its abstract "epistemology" (and I say this as a Socratic myself; one who loves philosophy). Authority flowed always from commonly-acknowledged miraculous historical events and historical criteria: a sort of "Christian mythology" (i.e., a corporately-preserved story of origins) but what C. S. Lewis would describe as "true mythology."

That "true (verifiable) mythology" is the following: Jesus was the incarnate God, and was a real Person. He performed miracles, and many people observed these. He rose from the dead, and proved the reality of that by appearing to more than 500 people, eating fish, showing that He possessed flesh and bones, etc. This is all historical, and a matter of eyewitness testimony (so one might say it is a historical-legal approach to theological truth). Likewise with the Church. There was one, recognized deposit of faith, passed on from our Lord Jesus to the disciples and Apostles, which Paul repeatedly refers to.

Jesus established a Church, with Peter as the head (Matthew 16:13-20). This Church has definite and discernible characteristics, described in the Bible. There were Apostles, and their successors were and are bishops. There were popes as well, and they exercised authority over the Church Universal.
Now, how was this Church identifiable in the early days and in the patristic period? Again, it was the historical criterion of authenticity. The Fathers always appealed to apostolic succession (a demonstrable historical lineage of orthodoxy) and Scripture, not Scripture Alone. 

The heretics were the ones who adopted Scripture Alone as their principle, because they knew that they couldn't produce the historical lineage (hence an early manifestation of the unChristian and unbiblical a-historicism which has been a dominant flaw of Protestantism ever since its inception). Protestants thus adopted the heretical principle of formal authority, whereas Catholics have consistently adopted apostolic succession as the criteria of Christian truth and legitimate, divinely-ordained authority. The Catholic Church traces itself back to the beginning in an unbroken line, centered in the Roman See and the papacy.

So when someone like me (a very low-church evangelical) becomes convinced of Catholicism, it is not merely another Protestant exercise of private judgment and de facto alleged self-infallibility. It is, to the contrary, the yielding up of private judgment and the acknowledgment of something far greater than oneself: an entity which is "out there;" which has always been there since Christ established it, preserving (only by God's enabling grace and will) apostolic Christian truth in its fullness and undiluted splendor. 

One accepts it based on the historical criteria, just as one would accept the historicity of the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth, or the authority of the Bible - itself grounded in historically verifiable elements (e.g., fulfilled prophecy, the continuance of the Jews, the astounding transformation of the early Christians, etc.). It is on the basis of history (and, of course, faith as well), as opposed to some alleged prideful, illusory, self-infallibility. Popes and Ecumenical Councils are just as bound to the received deposit of faith, as I am.

Newman himself accepted the Catholic Church based on undeniable historical realities, and thus was able to reject the man-made Anglican edifice of the Via Media. Likewise, I came to see (after also studying the so-called "Reformation") that evangelical Protestantism could not in any way, shape, or form fit the bill of the fullness of apostolic Christianity, either. Only Catholicism could do that.

I wanted apostolic, biblical Christianity: the Christianity which Jesus taught the disciples; not man-made variants, each containing maybe a few noble emphases left over from historical, apostolic Christianity, but always in the final analysis grossly deficient (though also quite beneficial and good insofar as they do contain many valid Christian truths).

Orthodoxy also possesses apostolic succession. I decided between the two options precisely on the same grounds: Orthodoxy had departed from a few universally-held beliefs of early Christian Tradition (namely, the prohibition of divorce and contraception). So history was determinative. This is how it has always been in the Christian faith until Luther brought in the radically subjectivistic notion of faith and authority, thus leading to the present doctrinal relativism, ecclesiological anarchy, and moral chaos of Protestantism.

All of these issues are complex in and of themselves, but that is the Catholic answer: we appeal to the patristic and apostolic (Pauline) methods of determining theological and apostolic truth. The Bible is central in all this as well (absolutely!); it is just not exclusive of Church authority. How can it be? Its very parameters were authoritatively declared by this self-same Church. Before then, various Fathers disagreed somewhat on the canon. Again, it is not a matter solely of sin. Authority was truly needed to settle that issue, just as it is needed to settle theological issues. Scripture Alone will not suffice.

Besides, Scripture itself points to the teaching authority of the Church, anyway, so it is a false dichotomy from the get-go, to pit the Church against the Bible, as if there is some inherent contradiction or "competition" between them. The Apostles and Fathers saw no such dichotomy. I imitate Paul, just as he imitated Christ (as he commanded me to do). I reject the Johnny-come-lately novel notions of Luther, because they can't be traced back to the Apostles in an unbroken line - thus are corruptions insofar as they differ from Catholic dogma.

It is an absurd and incredibly arrogant, pompous notion which would have us believe that a person today, 2000 years after Christ, could sit alone with his Bible and come up with all theological truth - i.e., with Christianity just as Jesus would have taught it. No one has ever been able to do that. But a Church established and protected by God can preserve the apostolic deposit.

Now, quite obviously (I think), what Paul is speaking of when he refers to "tradition"  is not an individualistic thing, kept by each person as an esoteric "secret," as the gnostic heretics would have it. No, it is obviously a corporately held entity. It is held in common by the Church, as the collectivity of Christians. And as this deposit of faith was one unified teaching, there necessarily had to be one Church which preserved it and promulgated it. 

We clearly see such a Church in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. They met together and authoritatively decided on doctrine, even having to do with matters of salvation (Acts 15:2). We also see the institutional, visible Church in the power - granted by Christ - to "bind and loose" and to forgive sins. This was how God intended for His Church to be set up. There is such a thing as a bishop. The office did not cease, as the office of Apostle did. The doctrine of the institutional, visible, hierarchical Church is clearly found in Scripture as well.

I disagree that the Bible espouses a notion of allowable doctrinal relativism. Protestantism only adopts that because to not do so would be to self-destruct at the level of foundational premises. The historical and theological failure of the Protestant system thus forces Protestants to ignore or rationalize away clear biblical teaching in this fashion. We are under no such compulsion; we can simply follow the Bible in its entirety, not having to ignore that which contradicts and rebukes our system (as in Protestantism). Again, Paul is very clear:
    Galatians 1:9,12 . . . If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed . . . For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
And this is assuredly not the truncated four-step evangelical "gospel" - it is the entire deposit of apostolic faith, as all the Pauline quotations above make clear. Jesus commanded His disciples to instruct new converts to "obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matt 28:20; NRSV). Not the central doctrines, or TULIP, or the Creeds alone; no, EVERYTHING. God has to use division to teach us things, just as He uses any number of sins to teach a stubborn, prideful, rebellious human race. 

That doesn't mean He countenances it in His perfect will. That will is expressed in John 17 and many other passages decrying disunity. In fact, Paul, in the context of the verse you cite (1 Cor 11:19), states outright that because of abuses and divisions, he does not "commend" the Corinthians (11:17-18,22). He rebukes the same church in no uncertain terms for divisions in 1 Cor 1:10-13, 3:3 ff., 12:25, and 2 Cor 12:20. Protestants  have no case for such permissible doctrinal relativism, pure and simple.

In John 16:13, Jesus is speaking to His disciples, at the Last Supper. He said that the Spirit would guide them (by extension, the Church) into "all the truth" - hardly consistent with the Protestant position of sanctioned relativism for the purpose of "growth." In 1 Jn 4:6 the Apostle John is teaching that Christians can "know the spirit of truth." Only two of the four passages refer solely to unbelievers. But that doesn't affect my general point that falsehood is harmful; it is harmful to believer and nonbeliever alike. In the Protestant system,  falsehood necessarily exists, due to ever-present contradictions which are not able to be resolved, and even rationalized away as necessary and even helpful!

We are given no reason to believe that whole areas of doctrine can be "up for grabs" -- to be determined by the whim and fancy of every individual believer, with perfect disregard for the history of doctrine and practice (I exaggerate somewhat to graphically make my point).

Luther originated this novel notion of perspicuity, and illustrated in his own life and conflicts the ultimate absurdity and impossibility of it. And it is equally silly to pretend that present-day Protestantism has no organic connection to Martin Luther, its very Founder.

What possible criteria could falsify Protestant beliefs about perspicuity? What possible critique could cause a Protestant to question his rock-solid faith in the axiomatic premises of Protestantism? If a position is not based at all in reason, reasonable discourse obviously can't dissuade someone from the position.

Scripture is perspicuous, yet it can't settle this issue of baptism and the Eucharist, with vigorous discussion among "brothers?" And why is that? Because the "other guys" are blinded by sin and denominational bias, whereas we are not! But then this pretty much implodes the whole perspective, since it is allegedly applicable to central doctrines. Baptism and Eucharist are usually regarded as "primary" and "essential" doctrines -- precisely the sort of beliefs that a perspicuous Scripture is supposed to resolve. Yet they have not been resolved; ergo: this understanding of perspicuity is false. The sin argument is far too simplistic. It will not do. The issues are far more complex than that.

We have multiple parties, all approaching Scripture with open-mindedness and willingness to follow it, and they still disagree nonetheless. As a Catholic, I can freely affirm that Calvin and Luther were both utterly sincere and passionate in their commitment to Holy Scripture as authoritative. Yet they couldn't agree on many fundamental issues. Protestants are forced to cast aspersions on others' purity and motives in order to uphold the false belief of a perspicuous Scripture wholly distinct from an authoritative teaching Church. There is no way to resolve such disputes within Protestantism. The proverbial man on the street cannot achieve any certainty within these presuppositions. 

I shall end by citing a well-known Protestant theologian, G. C. Berkouwer, who is candid enough to acknowledge as quite legitimate and troubling many of the objections I have been raising:
    Such a variety of differing and mutually exclusive interpretations arose - all appealing to the same Scripture - that serious people began to wonder whether an all-pervasive . . . influence of subjectivism in the understanding of Scripture is not the cause of the plurality of confessions in the church. Do not all people read Scripture from their own current perspectives and presuppositions . . . with all kinds of conscious or subconscious preferences? . . . Is it indeed possible for us to read Scripture with free, unbiased, and listening attention? . . . We should never minimize the seriousness of these questions . . . 'Pre-understanding' cannot be eliminated. The part which subjectivity plays in the process of understanding must be recognized . . . The interpreter . . . does not approach the text of Scripture with a clean slate. (Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1975, translated from Dutch ed. of 1967 by Jack B. Rogers, pp. 106-107, 119) An attempt has often been made to solve this problem by referring to the 'objective' clarity of Scripture, so that every incomplete understanding and insight of Scripture is said to be due to the blinding of human eyes that could not observe the true light shining from it . . .  In considering this seemingly simple solution . . . we will soon discover that not all questions are answered by it . . . An incomplete understanding or a total misunderstanding of Scripture cannot simply be explained by blindness. Certain obstacles to understanding may also be related to Scripture's concrete form of human language conditioned by history . . . Scripture . . . is tied to historical situations and circumstances in so many ways that not every word we read is immediately clear in itself . . . Therefore, it will not surprise us that many questions have been raised in the course of history about the perspicuity of Scripture . . . Some wondered whether this confession of clarity was indeed a true confession . . . The church has frequently been aware of a certain 'inaccessibility.' According to Bavinck . . . it may not be overlooked that, according to Rome . . . Scripture is not regarded as a completely obscure and inaccessible book, written, so to speak, in secret language . . . Instead, Rome is convinced that an understanding of Scripture is possible - a clear understanding. But Rome is at the same time deeply impressed by the dangers involved in reading the Bible. Their desire is to protect Scripture against all arbitrary and individualistic exegesis . . . It is indeed one of the most moving and difficult aspects of the confession of Scripture's clarity that it does not automatically lead to a total uniformity of perception, disposing of any problems. We are confronted with important differences and forked roads . . . and all parties normally appeal to Scripture and its perspicuity. The heretics did not disregard the authority of Scripture but made an appeal to it and to its clear witness with the subjective conviction of seeing the truth in the words of Scripture. (Ibid., pp. 268-271, 286) ***

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