Maximum Fruitfulness: A Statement of Aspirations

R. Fowler White

Is there any congregation of Christ’s church who doesn’t aspire to see maximum fruitfulness from her ministries? Seems doubtful, doesn’t it? Even those churches who don’t buy into goals of “big attendance, big budget, big building” want to see “maximum fruitfulness.” But, of course, if we don’t define fruitfulness in terms of bigness, how will we define it? Exactly what fruit are we looking for? With that last question in mind, what follows is a brief exposition of a working hypothesis about fruitfulness in local church ministry – a statement of aspirations, if you will.

So, where to start? I start with what I take to be a biblically faithful “purpose statement” for the congregations of Christ’s church. Granted that the chief end for which Christ’s church and all other things exist is to glorify God, I find a purpose statement for the church in WCF 25.3. There, according to the Assembly, the purpose for which Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God is this: “the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” Understandably, we think of “gathering the saints” primarily in terms of evangelistic fruitfulness. And well we should. That’s not our focus here, however. Rather our attention is on “perfecting the saints.” Lest I misinterpret this “perfecting,” I look back to WCF 13, where I find that the term perfecting is virtually interchangeable with the process of sanctification, that is, with the saints’ “grow[th] in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (WCF 13.3). In that context, we recognize that the growth in view is that of the saints’ traits (qualities), not their number (quantity). Please note: that’s not to say that numerical growth (even “big attendance”) is irrelevant: it’s just to say that the number of gathered saints is not the Assembly’s point in their choice of the word perfecting. So, if you’re looking for a purpose statement for your congregation, here’s one: to gather and grow saints. Simple, brief, memorable.

But maybe too brief. It’s possible and desirable to describe the perfecting of the saints more fully. Surely, increasing holiness and decreasing worldliness in the individual saint’s life are in view. Again, however, we can say more. We can focus on the perfecting/growth of congregations as well as of individuals. It’s vital for us to look for the fruit of more holiness and less worldliness in our congregations. Yet we should not overlook other fruit in which “congregational sanctification” should be expressed. As far as I can tell, in addition to growth from evangelism that gathers the saints, Scripture points to three other categories of fruitfulness – three crops, if you will – yielded by congregations who grow the saints they’re gathering.

First, congregations are to grow in unity. It’s striking how frequently the NT authors address the duty not just to maintain unity (see Phil 1.27–2.2), but to attain it too. Eph 4.1-16 provides a sweeping overview of the two tasks. In 4.1-6 Paul makes an appeal to “maintain the unity” created by the one Spirit (4.1-3), an appeal based and expressed in seven unifying confessional acclamations (4.4-6). In 4.7‑16 Paul highlights how the diverse gifts bestowed on the church enable her members to “attain to the unity” of faith and knowledge. The context of Ephesians 4, then, sees the church moving from the unity of childhood (4.4‑6, 14) to the unity of adulthood (4.13, 15‑16). From the unifying articles of her immaturity (4.4‑6), through the “speaking the truth in love” of her maturation (4.15), to the unity of faith and knowledge in her maturity (4.13), confessional unity is at the heart of the church’s identity. In fact, as one commentator puts it, oneness is essential “to the very being and life of the church. She can only live as a confessing church.” And lest we think that Paul has only the universal visible church in mind in Eph 4.1-16, we should note that he speaks of “pastors and teachers” in 4.11, gifts whose ministries are associated primarily with local church contexts. Thus, maturation unto unity in the faith takes place in and through the local congregations of Christ’s universal visible church. Most notably for our purposes, however, maturation in the faith is conceived in terms of confessional unity (i.e., shared convictions and witness about what to believe and how to behave) at the congregational level.

Second, congregations are to grow in discernment. As the pillar and bulwark of the truth, the church is responsible to grow, corporately as well as individually, in her discernment of God’s revealed will (Rom 12.2; 16.17-19; Eph 4.13-16; Col 1.9-10; 2 Pet 3.18) and to bear public witness to that will in word and deed (1 Tim 3.15-16; Jude 3; 1 Pet 3.15; Eph 4.3-6, 13-16). To empower the church to fulfill these responsibilities, Christ gives her the Spirit of truth, thereby enabling and obliging her members to distinguish truth from error, right from wrong, good from evil (1 Cor 2.12–3.3; 12.1-3; Heb 5.11-14; 1 John 2.27; 4.1). Possessing the same Spirit, God’s household also possesses at least the seed of those saving graces necessary to make public confession even from its childhood. Yet congregations are expected to grow in discernment too, so that members are no longer little children in the faith (Eph 4.14). Accordingly, parents generally and fathers particularly are exhorted to instruct their families (Gen 18.19; Deut 6.7; Prov 1.8; 22.6; Eph 6.4). Moreover, through training and practice, some in God’s household will emerge to exercise saving graces more ably and fully than others, thus distinguishing themselves as examples worthy of emulation (Heb 5.14). In this light, we understand that a congregation’s maturation will be recognized in their increasingly shared discernment of what is true, right, and good.

Third, congregations are to grow in their stewardship of the gifts-for-ministry that the Spirit has distributed among His saints for their perfecting (1 Cor 12.11; 1 Pet 4.10-11). Out of love for neighbor (1 Cor 12.31–13.7), saints are exhorted to devote themselves to “the common good” (1 Cor 12.7) – in other words, to edifying one another (1 Cor 14.12). In that devotion, a division of labor emerges: both Paul and Peter teach us that some will minister in word; others in deed (Eph 4.11-12; 1 Peter 4.11). Whatever one’s gifts, the saints are told to remember that “each has received a gift,” and each is to “use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet 4.10; cf. 1 Cor 14.12). So, growth in the household of faith at the congregational level will find members with a justifiable conviction of what their gifts are (Rom 12.3) and also a spirit of accountability to employ those gifts for the common good (1 Pet 4.10).

So there you have it: a working hypothesis that, when it comes to perfecting the saints, the fruitfulness we’re looking for in local church ministry is that God would grant our congregations to be united, discerning, and good stewards of our gifts for ministry. Let me know where you agree or disagree, especially where I have wrong or incomplete information or where I reach wrong or incomplete conclusions.

R. Fowler White

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A Warning to Bible Commentators

I came across this in a recent Bible commentary on Ezekiel (commenting on chapter 32:1-16), by Nancy Bowen, and I almost threw up when I read it (some moderate apology is necessary for even posting this, but the warning needs to be there):

As for YHWH, we ought not exonerate, much less extol, such divine violence. Like Job, we should bring God to trial for crimes against humanity. Preservation of divine “sovereignty” comes at a terrible cost of suffering and death. If God is a warrior, then God’s hands are bloody (p. 200).

Honestly, why do some Bible commentators think they can get away with saying stuff like this, just because they have Ph.D. next to their names? Have they never read C.S. Lewis’s “God in the Dock” essay? Have they never read Romans 9? The tragic irony of such blasphemy is that Nancy Bowen winds up committing the very same mistake that Pharaoh of Egypt commits in Ezekiel 32. He thought of himself as a lion, but he was more of a crocodile. Her self-assessment is that she is in a position to judge God Almighty and find Him wanting. The hubris of this quotation is absolutely breath-taking! She thinks of herself as judge, but she will find that she is a defendant.

Bible commentators often think that they can say whatever they want, and no repercussions will ever come their way. This is not true. I hope and pray (for Nancy Bowen, as well as others like her), that they will realize their sin before it is too late, and turn in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Having and Eating Your Cake

I started reading Godfrey’s historical, systematic, and pastoral treatment of the Canons of Dort today. It is a treasure, and I highly recommend it to all. I came across this reminder of how the Remonstrants responded to the calling of the Synod:


The Arminians objected sharply to the calling of the synod, insisting that it would be unfair, indeed a kangaroo court. They stated that a synod composed of their theological opponents could not fairly or objectively judge the theological issues in dispute. The Calvinist majority in the church responded that since they were simply upholding the standing doctrine of the church against the Arminian innovations, they were abundantly able to judge rightly (21-22).

This reminded me of the FV objections to the makeup of the PCA committee on the FV. But the objection is completely disingenuous. It is an attempt to have one’s cake and eat it, too. Both the Arminians and the FV advocates hold that they are simply teaching what Scripture and the confessions of the church teach. But if that is the case, then why did they label those of a different opinion “opponents”? They can’t be opponents if everyone is teaching the same Scripture and the same confessions.

The FV advocates, in particular, then tended to claim that it was a different paradigm, and that critics needed to get inside the paradigm in order to understand it. Well, if that is true, then it couldn’t be the paradigm of the Westminster Standards or 3FU, could it?

The point is simple: either the paradigm is the same, in which case no opposition exists (and therefore the innovators should have no objection to being judged by their peers), or the paradigm is different in which case the innovators have already proven the critics’ case that the new paradigm is non-confessional. The Remonstrants and the FV advocates both tried to have their cake and eat it as well. It was therefore a highly disingenuous move.

Introducing a New Baggins!

It is with great pleasure that I announce the addition of a new Baggins to our team, Dr. R. Fowler White. He has been a long-time reader and commenter, doing the latter with grace and careful thought. Dr. White has been involved with Ligonier Ministries for several years, contributing to Table Talk, and teaching at Ligonier’s Bible Academy. Welcome!

Changing One’s Mind

Bart Ehrman wrote a thoughtful piece recently on how and why some people change their minds and others do not. I would like to interact with this and hopefully show some alternatives that he appears not to have considered. Firstly, I will trace the flow of his argument, and then afterwards interact with it.

Ehrman starts out by relating his own story. He was a fresh-faced evangelical at age 20. Looking back on his then career path from a vastly more wise and mature vantage point, he now describes his previous mindset as “extremely weird.” Don’t miss the statement, “and to outsiders looks more than a little bizarre.” The desire for respect from the world plays a large part in his post. More on that later.

Ehrman describes two events in recent history that made him think of his earlier history. First, his conversation/debate with Peter Williams (an inerrantist), and a FB post from a former friend lambasting him for being an enemy of the truth. One presumes that Ehrman is trying to be funny with the crack about basketball. One would also presume that Ehrman does not seriously believe that his former friend is lambasting him because of basketball.

These two events prompted Ehrman to think about the question: why is it that some people change their minds about what they were taught when they were young, whereas other people hold on to their beliefs tenaciously? He puts himself firmly in the former category, and regrets the animosity he feels from his former friends. Again, the issue of respect from people comes into play.

The next few paragraphs are where the judgment starts to show. He finds it incredible that scholars should hold on to the views they held before (presumably meaning conservative views). If they do hold on to those views, the only reason they do is that they never did deepen their understanding of the issues and nuance their opinions.

On being accused of being an enemy of the truth, Ehrman believes his entire career has been one of seeking the truth, while those whose views remain what they were have not been seeking after the truth. The “nutshell” paragraph then follows:

I’ll try to put it in the most direct terms here: how is it at all plausible, or humanly possible, that someone can question, explore, look into, consider the beliefs they were taught as a young child (in the home, in church, in … whatever context) and after 40 years of thinking about it decide that everything they were taught is absolutely right? The views *they* were taught, out of the sixty trillion possible views out there, are absolutely right? The problem with these particular views (of evangelical Christianity) is that if they are indeed right, everyone else in the known universe is wrong and going to be tormented forever because of it.

Then follows a qualification: “I know most Christians don’t think this: I’m just talking about this particular type of Christian. And they don’t seem to see how strange it is that they are right because they agree with what they were taught as young children.”

He ends his reflections with what he believes is a sort of reductio ad absurdam: “I realize these are very old questions. When we were evangelicals we puzzled over the question of how God could punish people for eternity for not “accepting Christ” when they had never even heard of him. Unfortunately, we concluded that we weren’t sure how he would do that, but we were pretty sure he would. Most of the human race, of course, thinks the very idea is ludicrous.” Again the respect of people, for the third time.

Thus the flow of the post. Now for the interaction. The first thing I would say in response is that Ehrman seems to me to be committing one large fallacy of the poisoned well argument: “Your views are wrong because of where they came from (namely, parents).” If one’s main worldview issues arose out of what they were taught as youngsters, then they can’t possibly be correct, if Ehrman is right. But if Ehrman is right, then our parents were also wrong when they told us, “Don’t cross the street without looking both ways;” “Don’t go with strangers;” “Be polite and say ‘thank you’ and ‘please'”; and many other things we learned when we were young. Were many of those things simplistic in order to line up with our need for simple and sometimes simplistic understandings? Of course. However, the point I wish to make here is simple: just because our parents said it doesn’t make it wrong, any more than interaction with scholarship makes a particular viewpoint correct. After all, aren’t older, seasoned scholars our “intellectual” parents of sorts? Why should we reject or believe anything simply on the basis of what some scholar says? Ehrman doesn’t do this. He rejects lots of viewpoints that scholars propound.

Secondly, what if he teaches his views to his children in the future. What is to prevent them from saying the same thing about what they were taught by Ehrman later in life? Thus, Ehrman lops off the branch on which he himself is sitting. One suspects that the real problem here is that Ehrman found out that the people of the world do not approve of what he learned in childhood. Therefore he is seeking to distance himself as much as possible from it in order to be respectable. Yet, what about the reverse possibility? I know of many scholars who grew up in households completely antithetical to Christianity, atheistic households, in fact. Yet God’s grace changed them, and they became Christians and became devoted to furthering the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ehrman doesn’t address this possibility, probably because there isn’t any way he can account for it on his paradigm. The distinct impression given by Ehrman’s post is that the only way anyone could possibly believe those benighted conservative viewpoints is if they have their head in the sand, with regard to scholarship. Since he has admitted to not wanting to run in those conservative circles anymore, he can be forgiven for getting the wrong end of the stick entirely on this one. Since he doesn’t run in those circles, he doesn’t know or acknowledge the many conservative biblical scholars that go out of their way to read viewpoints that differ from their own (and not just for the purposes of debate!). The seminary professors I know and love, and have learned so much from, ALWAYS assign liberal scholars to read alongside the conservative ones. In actuality, it is the liberal scholars who move in confined circles. They almost never quote or read conservatives. No doubt they will respond that this is because there are so few conservative scholars. This would be a good example of the fallacy of ad populum. Truth is not achieved by counting noses, something Ehrman doesn’t seem to have learned yet. Let God be true, though every man be a liar.

Thirdly, he seems to leave out or discount the possibility that a conservative scholar could have grown up believing what his parents told him, grown up to achieve greater nuance and clarity regarding those views, deliberately test them by comparing them to as many worldviews out there as possible, and still believe that the basic points of worldview he grew up with are correct. In fact, I know many such scholars. If you read any of his commenters, they tend to be even less generous than Ehrman on this point. They commit the poisoned well argument with a vengeance!

Lastly, I will argue that the real reason conservative evangelical scholars hold on their viewpoints is that they believe it is what the Bible teaches. Ehrman disagrees, and thinks he has pre-empted this argument by stating that it was really just what we were taught when we were young. I answered this in the “secondly” paragraph above. Ehrman clearly buys into the postmodern viewpoint that the multiplicity of viewpoints negates the truth of any conservative viewpoint. He says, “The views *they* were taught, out of the sixty trillion possible views out there, are absolutely right?” In ascribing arrogance to conservatives for holding on to viewpoints they were taught, he is engaging in arrogance himself, since he clearly believes that his pluralistic viewpoint is THE correct approach to the multiplicity of views. What gives him the right to say that? And what gives him the right to say that the only viewpoint that is automatically wrong, out of the 60 trillion viewpoints out there, is the conservative one, simply because he doesn’t like where he learned it from, and thinks that people are naive for believing what their parents tell them? Does he not know that most Muslims learn their Islam from their parents? Would he dare to say the same about Muslim beliefs, simply because the vast majority of Muslims believe what they were told by their parents? Muslims (especially those in the Middle East!) are every bit as exclusivistic as conservative Christians when it comes to believing in only one worldview. Somehow, I don’t think he would say that Muslims are wrong simply because it is what they grew up with, probably because he fears what other people in the world think about him, and he wouldn’t want to offend Muslims. I think Muslims are wrong in what they think, but not because it is what they grew up with and were taught. It is because the life they attempt to build on top of their beliefs does not match their beliefs. But to prove that would go far afield from this post.

As to his last point, very few people I know believe that God will punish people for rejecting Christ if they have not heard of Jesus Christ. However, not having heard of Jesus Christ is hardly an excuse that gets one out of condemnation. No one has an excuse, according to Paul in Romans 1. The invisible attributes of God have been clearly seen in creation. If people do not give glory to God, then it is for that they will be judged. Ehrman might possibly object and say, “But you can’t believe in a God who would send anyone to Hell just because they were unlucky enough not to have heard about Jesus Christ.” This objection presumes that God owes everyone a chance at salvation. God owes nothing to anyone on earth. This fact should not, of course, make us complacent about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected for the salvation of sinners. Our love of neighbors should impel us to tell them about Jesus precisely so that they won’t be condemned, but be saved. Nevertheless, God owes nothing to any created being.

What Should Pastors Give?

I’ve just started reading Harold Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls. So far, I am very impressed. A Lutheran minister, Senkbeil had been pestered for years to write this book, since he has given a lot of advice to ministers. It was advice of the sort that saves ministries. The point I want to highlight here has to do with the substance of what pastors are supposed to give to the congregation and to those outside the congregation to whom he ministers.

Typically, seminary students are told that ministry means pouring out oneself for the benefit of the congregation. The better seminaries will emphasize the importance of your personal devotional life. However, Senkbeil points out the problem with the idea of pouring oneself out: this is what typically results in burnout. There is only so much in a man, after all. There is only so much emotional and spiritual capital that he can expend. If this is limited, then it actually doesn’t make sense to say that the pastor pours out himself. Not only is there the problem of the very limited resource, but an additional issue is the temptation to narcissism that this idea represents. If the pastor pours out himself, then the people will see that consciously or unconsciously. Some will react with acceptance, and thus make the pastor the focus of the congregation. Others will reject it and thereby throw out what there is of Christ in what the pastor offers.

Senkbeil offers another route, one which I think is well worth exploring. The pastor fills his soul with Jesus Christ, full to bursting, and then offers Jesus Christ, and not himself. He is then more of a conduit than a filter. Again, here, the better seminaries will say that the pastor is supposed to offer Christ. However, the implied corollary is often “filtered through you.” I would now say, in addition to being transparent to the text of Scripture (get out of the way and let the Scripture speak!), the pastor should also be transparent to Christ (he offers Jesus and not himself).

There are three things that I think will result from this game-changer. Firstly, the pastor will be far less likely to burnout if he is not offering himself. Incidentally, this would not mean “be impersonal and never be friendly or compassionate with the people in the congregation.” Instead, it means “the substance of what you offer is not you but Him.” Secondly, the importance of the devotional life becomes dramatically clearer, since the devotional life is one of the key places and times where the pastor becomes filled with Christ. Thirdly, he will be less tempted to narcissism. So also the congregation will be less tempted to make the ministry all about him, and instead will recognize that the ministry is all about Jesus Christ. The overall effect of this might very well be to lift a huge part of the burden of being a minister off the shoulders of the minister, to lay it on the infinitely more capable shoulders of our Lord.

Co-Laborers and Co-Heirs

(Posted by Paige)

Last year I had the unexpected privilege of contributing a chapter to a book by and about women in the PCA, Co-Laborers and Co-Heirs: A Family Conversation, which was published this week. The project is intended to be an outlet for and an encouragement to theologically gifted women in this complementarian denomination, as well as a plea to PCA (and other) church leaders to listen to and care about such women in their congregations. I’m flagging it here in case any of you decide to read it and want a place to comment or ask questions afterwards.

It’s an anthology, so if you do pick it up I think I can guarantee two things: (1) that not every chapter will appeal to you; and (2) (if you persevere with it) at least one of the authors—a mother, sister, brother, or daughter in the faith—will articulate a truth or an experience that will add to your store of compassion for women in your congregation, regardless of denomination.

In my chapter I chose the unusual path, for me, of writing autobiographically. As a rule I have mostly veered away from telling my own story when I write, wanting to keep my focus on the biblical and theological topics that I’ve opted to explore. I’m also not a fan of setting up myself (rather than my thinking) as a target for criticism.

But this time I decided that my story was worth telling. Fourteen years ago, I took the life-changing step of voluntarily moving from an entirely egalitarian church background into PCA membership. At the time, I was already a decade into what became a twenty-year dive into Reformed theology and redemptive history, and the leaders of my very traditional church didn’t know what to do with me. My chapter recounts how we muddled through more than a dozen years together, in that context and with my gifts of study and teaching.

Spoilers: there’s been love in that mix, as well as sorrow and frustration. I tell my story for the sake of others who might also end up walking this road-less-taken, either as theologically trained women in a complementarian setting, or as elders who receive such women into membership and don’t quite know how to welcome them.

I’d be glad to field specific questions about my experience or general questions about the book, though I cannot speak for any of the other authors. (I didn’t even know most of them existed until we collaborated on this project.) Mainly I wanted to provide a space in the GB context for the reactions I expect our project will provoke. Have at it.

A Great Felicity of Heaven

From Jean Taffin’s The Marks of God’s Children, p. 31:

Suppose that someone of whom you are as fond as you are of yourself were to experience the same joy as you. Would not the overflowing joy that you feel in that blessedness be doubled because of the joy and glory of the one whom you cherish as much as you do yourself and for whose well-being you are as happy as you are for your own? And should two, three, or even more whom you esteem all experience the same blessedness, would you not rejoice in the happiness of each of them as much as in your own? How then will this not be the case in that perfect love, with which we will love all the divine angels and all the elect, loving each of them as much as we do ourselves and being no less happy in the joy of each of them than we are in our own joy?

Taffin goes on to note on the same page that not even this amazing happiness is the greatest joy of heaven. For even the joy of the community will pale in comparison to the joy of the Triune God’s fellowship. The thought I had about this is simple: we aren’t getting much of a head start on this joy today, because we are too individualistic. The same problem, on the negative side, prevents us from being very sympathetic for our Chinese and Nigerian brothers and sisters, who are undergoing the most severe persecution right now.

A Change in Strategy

Satan has changed his strategy with regard to his warfare against the church in the West. For the period of the 1960’s up through most of this current decade, his strategy has been to entertain Christians into an oblivion of forgetfulness and numbness. It has worked to a spectacular degree until recently. The signs are that the church in the West is not quite so much in decline as secularists and many Christians believe. This means that Satan must change his strategy. The carrot is no longer working. The stick must replace it.

It has already begun with some opening salvos, the baker in Colorado and similar stories. If the Equality Act passes, however, the stick will begin in earnest. Of course, Satan doesn’t ever seem to learn from the past. Neither the carrot nor the stick can override God’s purposes in the world. The best he can hope for is to hinder the church. Will Christians stand firm? You see, the most insidious thing about the transition from carrot to stick is that the carrot leaves many Christians soft and unwilling to stand up for what they believe. Then when the stick comes, they cave in, rotten from within. Now is the time for Christians to pray that the Lord will restore our marrow, our backbone, our moral fiber.

How will the Lord God do this? The same way He has always done: through the regular means of grace. It is God’s grace that turns invertebrates into vertebrates. It is a steady diet of the Word of God, the Lord’s Supper, remembrance of and meditation on the meaning of baptism, prayer, and fellowship with other like-minded Christian vertebrates that will instill strength into us so that we will stand in the face of hatred masquerading as tolerance.

The only remaining question is this: are we willing to pay the price? The price will be necessary. Churches need to plan on losing their luxurious tax-exempt status. Pastors need to plan on doing jail time, for they will not typically be able to afford the fees. Will we see these things as opportunities to witness to the world about how Christians suffer for the cause of Christ, or will we do nothing but bellyache about it all?

As Western Christians finally realize that persecution is coming their way, maybe the most salutary effect it will have on us is that we will be far more conscious of our brothers and sisters around the globe who are suffering far more. Their lives are in danger, and they are being taken, especially right now in Nigeria. The worship of God is being hampered in China. All too often, Christian reaction to these things has been almost complete indifference, followed by a quick return to our mind-numbing entertainments. That possibility is coming to an end.

Some kinds of repetition in prayer are good

Thomas Manton explains:

This repetition is not to be disapproved when there is a special emphasis and spiritual elegancy in it, as Ps. cxxxvi., you have it twenty-six times repeated, ‘for his mercy endureth for ever;’ because there was a special reason in it, his purpose there being to show the unweariedness and the unexhausted riches of God’s free grace, that, notwithstanding all the former experiences they had had, God is where he was at first. We waste by giving, our drop is soon spent; but God is not wasted by bestowing, but hath the same mercy to do good to his creatures as before (The Works of Thomas Manton, I, 24-5).

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