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By the Washing of Regeneration

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, ESV)

This coming Sunday, I have been asked to provide pulpit supply for my pastor who is taking some time to visit his brand new, and very first, grandson. The text I selected was Titus 3:1-7, and in particular, a section in the middle jumped out at me. One phrase caught my attention.

by the washing of regeneration

Paul, writing to one of his successors Titus, is concluding the letter with some instructions. Immediately before this passage, he exhorted the people to obey the governing authorities, to be ready to do good works, and to be charitable all people. (1-2)

Then he grounds his command in the fact that we were once sinners who also needed God to show us kindness and charity. (3)

That brings us to our passage. While we were still in the state described in verse 3, the loving-kindness of the Father appeared. That loving-kindness was Jesus. (John 3:16, Rom 5:8) Contrary to Roman Catholic thought, the Father saved us “not because of works done by us in righteousness.” (3:5a) Rather he saved us “according to his own mercy. (3:5b)

In the second half of verse 5, we come to the contentious phrase which is the subject of our inquiry today.

by the washing of regeneration

This passage has been interpreted variously throughout Church history. Some see it as an obvious reference to the rite of baptism. They use this passage to demonstrate that the washing (baptism) is effectual to bring about regeneration. They read the phrase as though it said something to the effect of “the regenerating washing.” This position the prevailing view among Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and some Anglicans. However, even among early church commentators who affirmed Baptismal Regeneration, this interpretation was not universal.

Strange! How were we drowned in wickedness, so that we could not be purified, but needed a new birth? For this is implied by “Regeneration.” For as when a house is in a ruinous state no one places props under it, nor makes any addition to the old building, but pulls it down to its foundations, and rebuilds it anew; so in our case, God has not repaired us, but has made us anew. For this is “the renewing of the Holy Ghost.” He has made us new men. How? “By His Spirit” (John Chrysostom, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. James Tweed and Philip Schaff, vol. 13 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 538.)

It is interesting to note here, that Chrysostom literally says “we were baptized (βεβαπτισμένοι) in wickedness.” It seems like if he was going to make the point that baptism regenerates us, that this would be a perfect intro. We once were baptized in wickedness, and we are now baptized in righteousness. However, he does not do so. Rather, he points out here that we cannot be purified, but rather we must be entirely rebuilt. That certainly does not sound like an infusion of grace that transforms us such that we are inherently just. I digress.

The Baptismal Regeneration reading is not justified. Rather, we should read the passage such that regeneration itself is the washing. Grammatically, the phrase λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας simply does not bear out the adjectival reading above. Rather, the second noun in the construction is better seen as the means or agent of the first. Thus it is better understood as something closer to “the regeneration which washes” or “the washing which comes about because of regeneration.” We see this clearly when we observe the following phrase which is joined with the coordinating conjunction καὶ.

and the renewal of the Holy Spirit

The phrase ἀνακαινώσεως πνεύματος ἁγίου is parallel to λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας and thus we may draw a reasonable conclusion that the construction is also parallel. It is evident that the phrase “Holy Spirit” does not describe the word “renewal.” If we take the Baptismal Regeneration view above, and λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας means “regenerative washing,” then this phrase here must mean something like “Holy Spirit inducing renewal.” Now, while it is true that those holding to Baptismal Regeneration would agree that baptism indeed brings about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, I am not aware of a single commentator here that uses this passage to support that. Rather they are of one voice in recognizing that this is telling us that the Holy Spirit brings about renewal. However, the same construct used immediately prior, says the Baptismal Regeneration Advocate, says that washing brings about regeneration. Why the discrepancy?

Instead, we ought to read this passage as though identical constructions function identically. In fact, the two constructions are referring to the same thing. The regeneration which washes is, in fact, an act of the Holy Spirit who renews. The washing described in the first phrase is the renewal described in the second.

If “through” (dia) were used before “renewal,” thus rendering “through the washing of rebirth and through renewal of the Holy Spirit,” it would describe two events instead of one. Simply stated, the text indicates that “washing” is an activity of the Holy Spirit and that this washing involves “rebirth” (palingenesias) and “renewal” (anakainoseos). (Thomas Lea and Hayne Griffin, New American Commentary, vol. 34 (Nashville: B&H, 1992), 323.)

What Paul here is describing is the regeneration and conversion of a Christian. He goes on to say that the purpose of the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit by which we were saved is “so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (7) He also notes that the Holy Spirit who brings about this regeneration and renewal is “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (6) This act is an act of the triune God from start to finish.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that this is not precisely the same as what is advocated by many in the Reformed tradition. Both Matthew Henry and John Calvin associate the phrase “washing of regeneration” with baptism. Henry does so more strongly than Calvin, but it is important to note that both draw the conclusion that the combination of phrases “washing of regeneration” and “renewal of the Holy Spirit” deny Baptismal Regeneration. What they are saying is not all that far off from what I’m saying. Rather than understand this passage as advocating Baptismal Regeneration, instead what we see is that the sign (baptism, here called the washing of regeneration) is here directly associated with that which is signified (regeneration itself here called the renewal of the Holy Spirit). While I disagree with them that baptism is in view here, I fully affirm the theology they are putting forward.

Augustine and Divine Processions

This year, as part of my devotional studies, I am working my way through Augustine’s magisterial volume On the Trinity.[1] I am hoping to provide some reflection and analysis here as I work through it.

Today, I was reading 2.1.4 and 2.1.5 today (99-100) and came upon something I think is a very fruitful discussion. Augustine, toward the beginning of this chapter, discussed that there is a particular rule which was informally utilized by various commentators and theologians. Roughly speaking, the rule was that if the text speaks of the Son as less than the Father, it is referring to the “form of a servant” IE according to humanity. If the text speaks of the Son as equal to the Father, it is a reference to the “form of God” IE according to divinity.

He also points out that some unclear passages which speak of the Son in a way that refers to the fact that the Son is from the Father, and do not fit either of the above two categories.

There are, however, some statements in the divine utterances of such a kind that it is uncertain which rule should be applied to them; should it be the one by which we take the Son as less than the Father in the created nature he took on, or the one by which we take him as equal to the Father, while still deriving from him his being God from God, light from light? (2.1.2)

He uses these passages to ground the eternal processions of the Son and Holy Spirit.[2]  Of particular note is John 5:26 and 5:19.

For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. (5:26, ESV)

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.(5:19, ESV)

Augustine brilliantly uses the latter to show that the external works of the Trinity are one. I will leave that discussion for a later post. But the former is a verse that has always puzzled me. The verse is arguably talking about the divine attribute of aseity, but how can in-him-self-ness be granted to you? Doesn’t that defeat the whole point of aseity?

Augustine explains

So the reason for these statements can only be that the life of the Son is unchanging like the Father’s, and yet it is from the Father (2.1.3)

The Son is indeed a se, but his aseity is from the very nature which comes from the Father. That is, since the Son’s personal origin is that he is begotten of the Father, he gets everything he has and is from the Father. That is why the Nicene Creed, which Augustine is referencing here, says that the Son is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” It is also the reason that the Athanasian Creed indicates that although each person considered as a person is a given attribute —Aseity, Omnipotence, etc.— that there is only one attribute shared among the persons.

Therefore, just as He gave the Son life (Jn 5:26) means nothing else than “He begot the Son who is his life… (2.1.4)

Understanding this is vital for the Reformed to, because this theology would develop into a doctrine in Roman Catholic thought —especially under Aquinas— where the nature of the Son is actually communicated to the Son by the Father such that it is practically a second numerical nature. Calvin, however, would postulate a different formula which better retains the numerical singularity of the divine nature.[3] Some accuse Calvin of implicitly denying eternal generation —and consequently of eternal procession— but in actuality, this is simply a proper recovery of what Augustine is saying here.

Augustine then takes this same approach and applies it to the procession of the Holy Spirit.

And just as the Son is not made less than the Father by his saying, The Son cannot do anything of himself except what he sees the Father doing (Jn 5:19) […] so her it does not make the Holy Spirit less to say of him, He will not speak from himself but whatever he hears he will speak (Jn 16:13). This is said in virtue of his proceeding from the Father. (2.1.5)

While I doubt that this kind of sophisticated reasoning will do much to convince the hardened Jehovah’s Witness… or EFS advocate for that matter… it goes a long way to demonstrate —using Scripture— that these eternal processions exist.

For a very helpful modern treatment of the subject, see Holmes, Christopher. The Holy Spirit. New Studies in Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015. Holmes devotes 4 chapters —two each— specifically to the procession of the Holy Spirit as it is developed by Augustine and Aquinas in their commentaries and sermons on the Gospel of John.

[1] I am working from Augustine of Hippo. The Works of Saint Augustine. Edited by John Rotelle. Translated by Edmund Hill. Vol. 5. Hyde Park: New City, 1991. All citations will follow the numbering and pagination schema for that version.

[2] Processions refer to the two relationships of origin which the Son and Spirit have with the Father. It is an unfortunate quirk of theological linguistics that the term Processions (plural) is used to describe these relationships while the term Procession (singular) is also used to describe the unique relationship of origin which the Spirit has with the Father (and or through the Son)

[3] Dr. K Scott Oliphint offers an excellent lecture regarding this that is available at the Reformed Forum site.

The 3rd Commandment and Images of Christ

In the Reformed tradition, both English/Puritan[1] and Continental[2], the second commandment is understood as prohibiting all images of Christ regardless of their intended use. However, a common objection is made that this goes beyond the boundaries of Scriptural prohibition, which only excludes the use of images for the purpose of worship. While this is exegetically unsound, for the sake of this post let’s grant the point.

The Westminster Larger Catechism provides an expanded explanation of not only the sins forbidden in the 3rd commandment, but also of the duties required.

Q. 111. Which is the third commandment?
A. The third commandment is, Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Q. 112. What is required in the third commandment?
A. The third commandment requires, that the name of God, his titles, attributes, ordinances, the word, sacraments, prayer, oaths, vows, lots, his works, and whatsoever else there is whereby he makes himself known, be holily and reverently used in thought, meditation, word, and writing; by an holy profession, and answerable conversation, to the glory of God, and the good of ourselves, and others.

According to the English/Puritan tradition, as related in the Westminster Larger Catechism, the third commandment obliges us to only use the things regarding God in a holy and reverent way. This applies not only to his name but to any other way he has revealed himself. Thus, if we have an image of Christ which we purport to be accurate in any way, we are to meditate on that image to the glory of God. In short, we are required to use that image in worship. However, as the objection states, there is a prohibition of the utilization of any image in worship. This is uncontroversial among those claiming to be Reformed.

Q. 113. What are the sins forbidden in the third commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the third commandment are, the not using of God’s name as is required; and the abuse of it in an ignorant, vain, irreverent, profane, superstitious, or wicked mentioning or otherwise using his titles, attributes, ordinances, or works, by blasphemy, perjury; all sinful cursings, oaths, vows, and lots; violating of our oaths and vows, if lawful; and fulfilling them, if of things unlawful; murmuring and quarreling at, curious prying into, and misapplying of God’s decrees and providences; misinterpreting, misapplying, or any way perverting the word, or any part of it, to profane jests, curious or unprofitable questions, vain janglings, or the maintaining of false doctrines; abusing it, the creatures, or anything contained under the name of God, to charms, or sinful lusts and practices; the maligning, scorning, reviling, or any wise opposing of God’s truth, grace, and ways; making profession of religion in hypocrisy, or for sinister ends; being ashamed of it, or a shame to it, by unconformable, unwise, unfruitful, and offensive walking, or backsliding from it.

The sins forbidden in the second commandment are the flip side of the duties required. If the duties compel us to use what God has revealed in a holy and reverent way, to the glory of God —that is to use what God has revealed to worship him— then we are obligated to worship using any accurate image of God we have. We are forbidden to use such an image in a vain or irreverent way. This excludes any image that is not attempting to portray Christ in an accurate biblical way. It excludes any art which defames or demeans Christ. But it also prohibits any images which are not used to worship and glorify Christ. As stated above, it is uncontroversial among the Reformed that we are not to use images of Christ in worship, and according to this understanding… we are unable to not use images of Christ in worship if they existed.

The question sometimes comes up: What about images of Christ that are used for instructional reasons?

This is a reasonable question. Indeed instructing in the faith is an activity which glorifies God, but strictly speaking may not be worship. The Heidelberg Catechism addresses this in Q&A 98

Q. But may not images be permitted in churches
in place of books for the unlearned?

A. No, we should not try to be wiser than God.
God wants the Christian community instructed by the living preaching of his Word—
not by idols that cannot even talk.

This, to me, seems to be a conclusive argument against the production and use of images of Christ in any fashion. Let me summarize the four main points.

  1. If we have an accurate image of Christ, we are obligated to use that image in worship, to fail to do so would violate the 3rd commandment.
  2. We are forbidden to use any images in worship, to do so would constitute a violation of the 2nd commandment.
  3. If we have an inaccurate image which we purport to be of Christ, we are obligated to use it in worship, to fail to do so would violate the 3rd commandment.
  4. If we use an inaccurate image which we purport to be of Christ, we are worshiping a false idol, to do so would violate both the 2nd and 3rd commandments.

  1. WLC Q&A 109
  2. HC Q&A 96-98

Advent Series – WCF 8.5-6 (4)

Every year during the season of Advent I do a four part series in to match up with the four Sunday’s of Advent. In 2014 we explored the various heresies which facilitated the controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. In 2015 we took an in depth look at the Niceno-Constantinopolitian Creed. This year, we will take a look at the eight clauses of chapter eight of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Each week we will tackle two clauses.

5. The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.

This section teaches us three important truths. First, that it was both the active and passive righteousness of which satisfies God. It is not just that Christ died, but that he lived perfectly. Second, we see that the work of the Holy Spirit is central in Christ’s ministry. The perfect obedience and sacrifice which he gave to the Father to satisfy justice, was given through the Holy Spirit. Finally, the benefit which Christ purchased for us is not just that we are no longer at war with God, but we have become his sons and daughters. This section also notes that only those whom the Father has appointed to be the Son’s had the benefit purchased on their behalf, affirming the doctrine of Particular Atonement.

6. Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after his incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect, in all ages successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices, wherein he was revealed, and signified to be the seed of the woman which should bruise the serpent’s head; and the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world; being yesterday and today the same, and forever.

All saints throughout history were saved by this sacrifice, even though it happened in a point in time. These benefits were displayed to the saints by means of the promises given, types demonstrated, and through the sacrificial system which prefigures Christ.

Tony and the Athanasian Creed (3)

As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, there have been some who have accused me of trintarian heresy —not just error or heterodoxy, but damnable heresy— as a result of some concern (note that I did not say objections) I have expressed regarding the Athanasian Creed and its use in Reformed theology. While I cannot address everything in the depth I would like to in blog posts, I would like to provide some explanation. These posts are not intended to be comprehensive, rather they are intended to be short introductory reference posts for me to refer to rather than rehearsing things each time the issue comes up.

If you are planning on quoting me in these posts, please also provide a link to the article for context. One of the concerns I have is that those who have unjustly opposed me (there are those who have been mature and have had adult discussions and have still come away with concerns regarding my position, that is not who I intend to refer to) will use these posts to cherry pick quotes out of context. I began with what I think are the least controversial and complex reasons, and then proceeded to the more controversial and complex ones.

Today will close out this brief series, and I hope that it has helped to clarify where my concerns and questions regarding the Athanasian Creed lay. To conclude, I want to bring this full circle to a few things I said in the previous two posts.

As imperfect and growing creatures, we must always be testing our theology and ideas against the truth of Scripture. Additionally, we must recognize that when we interpret Scripture, that we are interpreting Scripture. We are imperfect interpreters, and for this reason God has given us the wise counsel of others. We would do well to take advantage of this blessing which God has given us in order to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith.” (Eph 4:11-13, ESV) As such, I reached out to a man I deeply respect and from whom I have learned more than I can recount.

Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is an expert in patristic theology, especially in the area of Trinitarian and Christological development in the concilliar period (4th through 6th centuries). More than that, he was my professor during seminary and taught me almost everything I know about the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and the patristic era. Even more than that, he is a mentor and friend.

I reached out to him to make sure I wasn’t crazy, and he graciously took time to read my posts and offer some clarification for me. With his permission, I want to offer some excerpts from his emails.

Your main point is exactly right, but it should apply to even the Nicene Creed. Nothing outside of Scripture is INHERENTLY authoritative. (Emphasis his)

As I said in my first post, the authority of the Athanasian Creed can only ever be a ministerial authority. That is, it can only ever have an authority that is derived from the Scriptures (the only magisterial authority Protestants recognize). Insofar as it agrees with Scripture, it is absolutely authoritative. Insofar as it disagrees with Scripture, it must be abandoned. Don here agrees with that point, and I think a good argument can be made that even the authors of the Nicene Creed would have agreed with that point.

Regarding the second blog, in short, what you think the Athanasian Creed may be saying (and which you correctly find acceptable) is what the Athanasian Creed IS saying. (Emphasis his)

In my second post, I argued that if the Athanasian Creed was saying what the Nicene Creed was saying, then I affirm it. I also noted that I believe that it is saying what the Nicene Creed is saying, but simply cannot have the same kind of certainty with the Athanasian Creed as we can with the Nicene Creed. I still think that is the case to a certain extent, since we have no knowledge of who composed it, or when it was composed. However Don helped me clarify a few things that I was lacking a full view of.

Jerome’s and Augustine’s problems with the Greeks had to do with the fact that they did not realize the Greeks had changed the way they used the word hypostasis. If Athanasius had been around to respond to them, he could have easily cleared up the whole problem, just as he had cleared it up at Alexandria in 362 when he “canonized” the new use of hypostasis.

But the point is that after the year 381, you get this kind of confusion only when Latins read what the Greeks write. When Latins write on their own (as in the Athanasian Creed), they have clear distinctions which govern their use of the terms, distinctions that go back to Tertullian. And when Greeks write on their own, they NOW have clear distinctions, forged by Athanasius (and to a lesser degree, the Cappadocians). So each side knows what it means, but the Latins don’t know what the Greeks now mean, because they confuse that with what the Greeks would have meant if they had been using the same word 100 years earlier.

Don explains that works of Latin theology were internally consistent, and works of Greek theology were internally consistent. The only time there was confusion was when Latin theologians (like Jerome and Augustine) read Greek theology. I think by extension that we may see some of these same kinds of problems when Greek theology was translated into Latin, but he did not confirm that. I think that a flaw in some of my thinking was that although I was vigorously arguing that the Athanasian Creed was written in Latin, in my mind I was still treating it as though it was translated from a Greek original. Had that been the case, I think my concerns probably still hold some force.

Bottom line: Your concerns about the Athanasian Creed are not justified, in my opinion. It is saying what you think it needs to say, not what you fear it might be saying. And you are right about what it needs to say, so there is no problem here with your Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Don, as an expert in the field —linguistically, theologically, and historically— has no concerns regarding the nature of the theology in the Athanasian Creed. He does say, in a subsequent email, that the approach of the Athanasian Creed in describing the Trinity is different from the approach of the Nicene Creed. “Instead of describing persons in relationship to one another, it describes the association between each person and the essence. In that way, it is too much like the later Western language for my taste, but it isn’t wrong per se.” This was a sort of follow-up to an earlier statement “that modalism lurks in the background of all discussions of the Trinity.” He didn’t say it, but I think that this especially is the case in western (Latin) Christianity. Fred Sanders observes something similar in an article he wrote discussing the two Creeds.

I am happy to take the correction of my friend and mentor, although he and I are in agreement that in terms of authority in the Church, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed are not on the same level in regards to “normative value.” That said, I still believe that because of the uncertain origin and —in my estimate— inappropriate anathema statements, that we as Reformed Protestant would do well to make our appeal to document with a verified composition, ecclesiastical and ecumenical origins, and a greater level of normative value.

I will note that Don here also explicitly affirms that my Trinitarian theology is fully within the scope of Christian orthodox belief (he is making this assessment not just on these posts, but on a three-year academic relationship and ongoing conversations).

That is not to say that the Athanasian Creed does not have a tremendous teaching value. In fact given what Don says above regarding the meaning of the Athanasian Creed, I think that it is one of the clearest articulations of Divine Simplicity we find in the early Church, and serves as a tremendous tool in refuting the error of those who affirm the Eternal Functional Submission of the Son (and Spirit).

I appreciate everyone who has taken time to read my work, and hope that this settles the issue. I also want to say a special thank you to Don for taking time to correspond with me on this subject.

I would highly encourage my readers to check out some of Don’s published writings. I’ve listed them below starting with the most accessible, proceeding to the more technical:

Additionally, Don has authored a book, which takes a different approach on language studies, that I would highly recommend for anyone going into seminary. Greek operates differently than English, and understanding the underlying structures and concepts of Greek and Latin before starting to memorize forms and paradigms will pay dividends.

He also has written a number of articles, most interesting to my audience may be an article submitted to Participatio in which he discusses the concept of extra nos justification in the work of Cyril of Alexandria.

Advent Series – WCF 8.3-4 (3)

Every year during the season of Advent I do a four part series in to match up with the four Sunday’s of Advent. In 2014 we explored the various heresies which facilitated the controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. In 2015 we took an in depth look at the Niceno-Constantinopolitian Creed. This year, we will take a look at the eight clauses of chapter eight of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Each week we will tackle two clauses.

3. The Lord Jesus, in his human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell; to the end that, being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, he might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a mediator, and surety. Which office he took not unto himself, but was thereunto called by his Father, who put all power and judgment into his hand, and gave him commandment to execute the same.

Although Christ never sinned, he was sanctified according to his human nature just as we will be, by union with God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. For us, our indwelling is finite, because we are finite. However, for the Son who is infinite, his union with the Spirit is likewise infinite. It is only through this infinite union that he can fulfill his role as both Mediator, and Guarantor, of the Covenant of Grace. This office was appointed to him by his Father, not by his own human will. All the authority we see Christ execute as a human, he executes because it was given to him by his Father.

4. This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake; which that he might discharge, he was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it; endured most grievous torments immediately in his soul, and most painful sufferings in his body; was crucified, and died, was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption. On the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered, with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father, making intercession, and shall return, to judge men and angels, at the end of the world.

Although he was appointed by his Father, the Son also executed this office by his own will, since they share a singular will. While on earth, Christ merited a perfect active righteousness by positively fulfilling every command of the law. He also merited a perfect passive righteousness by suffering physically and spiritually. He really bodily endured suffering, died, was buried, and rose again. He really bodily was taken to heaven and reigns in power with is Father. He really bodily will return to judge all rational creatures in the end times. This article affirms the historical nature of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and looks forward to the historical nature of his return. This excludes all forms of Full Preterism which denies a future advent of the Lord, as well as all forms of Liberalism which deny a historical bodily resurrection. It also excludes any form of Gnosticism or Docetism which deny a historical bodily incarnation or death.

Tony and the Athanasian Creed (2)

Hilary of PoitiersAs I mentioned briefly in a previous post, there have been some who have accused me of trintarian heresy —not just error or heterodoxy, but damnable heresy— as a result of some concern (note that I did not say objections) I have expressed regarding the Athanasian Creed and its use in Reformed theology. While I cannot address everything in the depth I would like to in blog posts, I would like to provide some explanation. These posts are not intended to be comprehensive, rather they are intended to be short introductory reference posts for me to refer to rather than rehearsing things each time the issue comes up.

If you are planning on quoting me in these posts, please also provide a link to the article for context. One of the concerns I have is that those who have unjustly opposed me (there are those who have been mature and have had adult discussions and have still come away with concerns regarding my position, that is not who I intend to refer to) will use these posts to cherry pick quotes out of context. I began with what I think are the least controversial and complex reasons, and will now proceed to the more controversial and complex ones.

This post will be much more technical, so please bear with me. The trinitarian terms enjoyed a development which begins before the rise of Christianity and continued well into the 5th century (and in many ways, continues today). Of particular note is the development of the terms ousia and hypostasis. Originally, in their use in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy the terms shared a broad overlapping semantic range. This use was adopted by early Christians as they sought to explain how God the Father, and Jesus Christ, were both to be said to be the one God. This is why we see in the original creed put forth at the Council of Nicaea in 325 that it was said that anyone who claimed that “[the Son] is of another substance” or “[the Son] is of another essence” are “condemned by the holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.” The first clause says hypostasis and the second says ousia.

In the way that we use the word hypostasis now, it would be heretical to say that the Father and Son are the same hypostasis. That is because in the time intervening the Councils of Nicaea and the Constantinople (381) there was significant development in how these terms were used. Michael Horton in the Christian Faith and Pilgrim Theology has an excellent discussion of this development. I would encourage you to check out the details (278 – 282 and 94 – 97 respectively). This development happened primarily in the Greek speaking portion of the Church and was lead by the Cappadocian Fathers.

Ultimately, and this is important, the word ousia came to refer to the way that God is unified, to the way that God is one. The word hypostasis came to refer to the way that God is three, to the way that the divine persons are diverse. In the Latin speaking west there were various translations which were used to refer to these concepts. Ousia was often translated as substantia or essentiaHypostasis on the other hand was more difficult to translate, and was variously translated as persona or substantia depending on the context.[1] As you can see, the word substantia was used in reference to both terms, which as you can imagine gave rise to all kinds of confusion in the west. The Reformers, seeing this confusion, coined a new Latin term, subsistentia, to stand in for hypostasis which we translate as subsistence.

Before we can get to the Athanasian Creed, we have to talk a little about Calvin and Jerome.

Calvin, in his section on the Trinity in Institutes of the Christian Religion makes a very interesting comment. As a brief aside, one of my readers reminded me that Calvin himself refused to sign the Athanasian Creed as a symbol of orthodoxy due to the anathema clauses I discussed in the previous post. He argued that there may be various ways to correctly articulate the Trinity, and to force someone to hold to one extra biblical way as opposed to another was unacceptable. This is not unlike the argument I have made.

In I.xiii.5 Calvin notes that Jerome “says it is profane to affirm that there are three substances in God.” Now, without understanding the linguistic issues I discussed above, we might readily agree with this. However, Calvin is not commending Jerome for his insight, he is chastising him for his error. Jerome, you see, is confused about the word hypostasis. Jerome thinks it is a reference to the way that God is one, but it is in fact a reference to the way that the persons are diverse. Calvin goes on to say “Then how greatly is Jerome perplexed with the word Hypostasis! He suspects some lurking poison, when it is said that there are three Hypostases in God.”

Jerome reads the translations of the Greek theologians and believes that they are saying that there are three ousia in God, because he doesn’t understand the distinction between hypostasis and ousia that was developed by the Cappadocians.

Why am I talking about Jerome? Well, Jerome was writing toward the end of the 4th century through the beginning of the 5th century. Calvin also notes that Augustine is not as confused as Jerome was, but he was indeed still not clear. The point is that Latin theologians from this era struggled to understand the primarily Greek theology of the Trinity which was the official orthodoxy of the Church, as defined by the Nicene Creed.

As I discussed in the previous post, we don’t know much about the author of the Athanasian Creed. You know what we do know though? He was a Latin writer, who was writing sometime during the beginning to middle part of the 5th century. In terms of theological acumen, we can assume his understanding of things is closer to Jerome or Augustine, than it is to Basil or Hillary.

Lets get to the actual creed now.

There are two areas of the creed that I think may be effected by this.

The first is found near the beginning of the creed.

That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons (personas); nor dividing the Essence (substantiam). For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead (divinitas) of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one.

I’ve included some of the key Latin terms. One of the things that happens, is that the translators try to help you by interpreting some of these terms. Because of this they do not translate things as literally as they could. I will provide a more literal translation.

That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons (personas); nor dividing the Substance (substantiam). For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Divinty (divinitas) of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one.

Now, this section can go one of two ways, we can read the Latin personas as a straight forward translation of the Greek hypostasis, and the Latin substantiam as a straight forward translation of the Greek ousia. If this is what is going on, then this is a perfectly orthodox and quite good summary of the theology of the Nicene Creed. However, the phrasing of the last sentence may mitigate against this. The translators believe that divinitas is a reference to the single divine nature which they share, which is why they translate it as Godhead. Again, if this is correct then we have no problems. However, if instead the term refers to an attribute or characteristic, then we run into issues. If the author is confused, as Jerome and Augustine were, about the use of the term hypostasis then the Creed becomes quite problematic. Note, there was a perfectly good word (essentiawhich does not run into this equivocation problem, but the author opted for the more equivocal word.[2]

That brings us to the second potentially concerning part of the Creed.

Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal.

The Creed goes on to include other similar listings. Assuming this is an articulation that correctly understands the hypostasis / ousia distinction, this is a beautiful articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity. The point is relatively straight foward, albeit infinitely complicated. The divine nature which the Father possesses, is one and the same divine nature which the Son and Spirit possess. Thus the “uncreatedness” of the Father, or the “unlimitedness” of the Son, or the “eternality” of the Spirit… are one and the same with the “uncreatedness”, “unlimitedness”, or “eternality” of the other persons. Another way to say this is exactly what was said in the previous section. The divinity of the persons is one. The Creed goes on to say “So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.”

Now, if this is what the Creed is affirming, I fully agree. This is what I mean when I say that I affirm the substance of the Creed, but I am not sure if I affirm the form (language) of the Creed.

The problem is that the author here is saying that there is one substantia in the Trinity. Which is true. However, we have seen that Latin theologians may be thinking that this means that there is one hypostasis in the Trinity. The author here basically is saying that when we apply an attribute to the persons of the Trinity as person, that we are speaking truth. However, we must acknowledge that those persons have that attribute because of a shared underlying reality. The nature of what that underlying reality is what is in question here. If the author is clear about the hypostasis / ousia distinction then we have no problem. If, however, like Jerome and Augustine and many other Latin theologians… this Latin theologian is not clear about that distinction, then we may have a problem. What about the adjective “hypostatic?” Can you substitute that into his formula?

The Father is hypostatic, the Son likewise, and the Spirit likewise… but there is only one hypostasis.

This gets to the fundamental issue… that is a sentence that we could very easily see Jerome write. If we could easily see Jerome write it… then it is also the case that another Latin theologian like the author of the Athanasian Creed may fall under the same confusion. Had the author of the Athanasian Creed used the unequivocal term essentia we would not be having this discussion… but he didn’t.

I noted above that I think these sections may be effected by this confusion. I simply don’t know. And I don’t think that we can know. When we read Jerome, we can look at what he says in other places and come to a conclusion that although he was a little confused, he is still orthodox. We can come to these conclusions with even more certainty with Augustine. We have other writing by these men (and most other Latin theologians) to give us context and clarify their meaning. We simply do not have this with the author of the Athanasian Creed. For centuries people believed this was written by Athanasius, so they assumed he meant the same thing that the Cappadocians meant, (ironically, this wouldn’t have been a great assumption anyway depending on when he wrote… he used the word hypostasis the way it was used in the anathemas discussed above, as a synonym for ousia until it was decided at a synod in 367 that the Eastern Church would use the word hypostasis to refer to the diversity, and ousia to refer to the unity), however this was a faulty assumption. The author shares more in common with Jerome than he does with Athanasius, with Augustine than he does with Basil. Linguistically, we are on solid ground to assume that he shared some of the same linguistic confusion that Jerome and Augustine did.

So, when I say that I affirm the substance of the Creed insofar as it is the same substance as the Nicene Creed (381), I say so cautiously because I’m not sure we can know if it does affirm the same substance. We can assume it does, and I’m okay with that. However, I would much rather appeal to a Creed which we do know the substance of, and which does have ecumenical origins and authority. In general, I’m a cautious theologian, and this is a reflection of this.

As I close, I want you to imagine a scenario. I recognize that it is an unlikely scenario, but just stick with me for a second.

Imagine we discovered a document which was written by a modalist. Someone who affirms that there is distinction between what we see as the Father, Son, and Spirit. Someone who would refer to that distinction as three personae. This person would say that while it is true that the Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, and the Spirit is eternal, that these three personae are only one eternal substantia. Now, imagine that in this same document, it is revealed that this modalist is also the author of the Athanasian Creed. That would be a devastating blow to the consistency and history of the Church’s confession.

Now, as I said, I recognize that this is a remote scenario. However, because we don’t know anything about who the author is, and do not know anything more than the latest possible date it could have been written… we cannot with certainty rule out this possibility.

I don’t think that a modalist wrote the Athanasian Creed,[3] and I think that the substance of the Creed is indeed orthodox. And I affirm that substance. However, because of the uncertainty… I have concerns. These concerns lead me to rely more on the Nicene Creed and Chalcedonian Definition.

  1. See Shedd, William. Dogmatic Theology. Third Edition. Edited by Alan Gomes. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003, 229-235 for a more detailed linguistic and lexical discussion of these terms.
  2. Shedd notes on 231 that the reformers and protestant scholastics preferred the word essentia rather than substatia, because even when we get to the Reformation the word substantia “logically implies accidents or unessential properties.” This is exactly the confusion which was happening in the 4th and 5th century among Latin theologians, so it is clear that this issue was not fully resolved by the time of the writing of the Athanasian Creed.
  3. It should be noted that I think in general there is a tendency to overemphasis the unity of the Godhead over the diversity of the persons in Western Christianity. This tendency lends itself to a modalistic confusion. We may feel as though modalism, also known as Sabellianism, is gone, however it “has remained a recurring challenge throughout church history.” (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, 95) The tendency to treat the divine nature as “some subsistent thing that stands behind or above the person and so leads to tetratheism or Seballianism” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:299) is real, and we must be aware of it if we are to properly safeguard ourselves against it.

Advent Series – WCF 8.1-2 (2)

Every year during the season of Advent I do a four part series in to match up with the four Sunday’s of Advent. In 2014 we explored the various heresies which facilitated the controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. In 2015 we took an in depth look at the Niceno-Constantinopolitian Creed. This year, we will take a look at the eight clauses of chapter eight of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Each week we will tackle two clauses.

1. It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man, the Prophet, Priest, and King, the Head and Savior of his church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the world: unto whom he did from all eternity give a people, to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.

This clause roots the incarnation not in a reaction to sin, but as part of God’s eternal purpose. God did not discover the sin of Adam and formulate a plan, but eternally intended his Son to serve as a mediator between himself and his people. This eternal appointment of the Lord Jesus is called the Covenant of Redemption, and should not be understood as an obeyed command by the Son, but as a mutual agreement between two (actually three, but not explicitly so here) Persons of equal nature, authority, and standing. The Son joyfully serves as the Mediator, and as a reward for his faithful service he receives from the Father a people to be his very own. These are the people who would be the beneficiaries of, and only intended recipients of, the atonement.

2. The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.

As was alluded to by the apposition in the first article, the second article makes explicit that this Mediator who was appointed by the Father is a single Person. That Person is the second Person of the Trinity, God the Son. the Son is fully and truly God, not only of the same kind of nature… but of one singular nature with the Father. This Son truly took on our nature, along with all its natural limitations and weaknesses, however he did not sin. Because he shares a single nature with the Father, Arianism is excluded. Because he took on all of our essential properties, Apollinarianism is excluded. This second article is essentially a restatement and reaffirmation of the Chalcedonian Definition and refutes both Nestorianism and Eutychainism. Furthermore, the historical reality of the virgin conception is affirmed, excluding various liberal errors.

Tony and the Athanasian Creed (1)

As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, there have been some who have accused me of trintarian heresy —not just error or heterodoxy, but damnable heresy— as a result of some concern (note that I did not say objections) I have expressed regarding the Athanasian Creed and its use in Reformed theology. While I cannot address everything in the depth I would like to in blog posts, I would like to provide some explanation. These posts are not intended to be comprehensive, rather they are intended to be short introductory reference posts for me to refer to rather than rehearsing things each time the issue comes up.

If you are planning on quoting me in these posts, please also provide a link to the article for context. One of the concerns I have is that those who have unjustly opposed me (there are those who have been mature and have had adult discussions and have still come away with concerns regarding my position, that is not who I intend to refer to) will use these posts to cherry pick quotes out of context. I will begin with what I think are the least controversial and complex reasons, and proceed to the more controversial and complex ones.

Now, there are several things that I have brought up regarding the Athanasian Creed that give me pause. However, before we get into that I want to make sure one thing is clear. I fully affirm the historic Nicene position on the Trinity. For reasons that will become clear in a later post, I must qualify my affirmation of the Athanasian Creed by saying that insofar as it agrees in substance with the Nicene Creed, I affirm the Athanasian Creed —not altogether different as I would say that insofar as the Nicene Creed, or the Westminster Standards for that matter, agree in substance with the Scriptures, I affirm them— completely. I affirm that there is one God, and that this one God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are genuinely distinct hypostases who fully and completely share a single simple ousia. Because these three share a single simple ousia they only way that they are different from —and distinguishable from— each other is by their hypostatic relations. Furthermore, the attributes they are in reference to their divine nature are not separate from each other. The omnipotence of the Father is the very same omnipotence which we see in the Son and Spirit, albeit hypostatized in a mode proper to each person in relation to the other two. Additionally, I fully affirm that the external operations of the Trinity are indivisible. When any one person acts toward creation (or in creating), the other two act in a way proper to their person in relation to the other two.

The first concern I have in reference to the Athanasian Creed, or more specifically the way that I have seen it used among my Reformed brothers (and sisters, although I have never had a woman confront me on this issue…), is its use as an authoritative and ecumenical creed on par with the Nicene Creed or Chalcedonian Definition. This concern is two-fold.

First, I affirm the Westminster Standards. The Westminster Standards are very clear that nothing apart from Scripture, not even the Standards themselves, can be used as a rule of faith.

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. – WCF 1.10

All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both. – WCF 31.3

As a brief aside, it is very interesting to note that the Westminster Confession is itself a revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which were the confessional standard of the Church of England at the time. Article 8 of the Thirty-Nine Articles confessionally obligated the reception of the Nicene Creed, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, even if still doing so only because they agree in substance with the Scripture. However, when revising the Thirty-Nine Articles, rather than repeat this clause, the Westminster Divines opted to replace it with 1.10 above. I don’t have the time in my life now to thoroughly investigate it, and perhaps someday that will make an interesting doctoral dissertation. However, it seems reasonable to me to hypothesize that this was a self-conscious move to do exactly what article 1.10 says, to return the final adjudication of religious matters and controversies to the Scriptures. It is also interesting to note that modern Anglicanism has revised the 39 articles to include only the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds in article 8.

That said, when interacting with my detractors, it has been said that I am a heretic because I reject the Athanasian Creed. Putting aside the fact that I don’t actually reject the Athanasian Creed for a moment. How is this not making the Athanasian Creed a rule of faith? I am being condemned as non-Christian, and in some cases as unsaved, because I have expressed some concerns relating —primarily— to the language used in the Athanasian Creed.

That brings me to the second part of my concern in this regard. The Athanasian Creed, long thought to be written by Athanasius himself in the intervening years after the Council of Nicaea, was actually written in Latin by an unknown individual, probably after the Council of Chalcedon. Carl Trueman notes in the Creedal Imperative that the Athanasian Creed “is not an ecumenical creed in the sense of having been produced and ratified by an ecumenical council.”[1] Instead, the Athanasian Creed was the product of an individual. Of particular note, and the reason my interlocutors appear to be comfortable —and in some instances almost gleeful— to condemn me to eternal hellfire, is the anathema clauses. The first appears in the very opening of the clause:

Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith. Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.

Like many other Creeds, it closes with a similar anathema:

This is the catholic faith: one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully.

Now, I have little objection to such an anathema in an ecumenical creed which is a product of an ecclesiastical council. The power of the keys was given to the Church, not to individual Christians. Furthermore, the Athanasian Creed does not appear to be attached to anyone with any ecclesiastical authority, at least we don’t know if it was or not. Had it been written by Athanasius, it would at least have the ecclesiastical authority of an ordained elder, but as it stands we really have no idea who wrote it. All we know is that it was written in Latin, by someone, probably in the 400s. My assessment based on the theology presented is that it was written after the resolution of the Eutychian controversy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

However, I have significant concern with an individual of unknown ecclesiastical status, pronouncing anathema over another (without rooting that anathema in a previously ratified ecumenical council). In many ways, the Athanasian Creed is a perfect example of a person elevating their own theological formulation over other Christians, and binding their conscience by it. While I affirm that the Church possesses the power of the keys, an individual does not… especially not an individual who may or may not hold ecclesiastical office. This person has made their summary of the faith, a rule of faith. Now, if their summary agrees in substance with the Scriptures, this is not a problem… I will discuss that in a future post (or maybe a couple).

Now, more could be said about this, and it behooves me to note that other Reformed confessional traditions, most notably the Belgic Confession, include the Athanasian Creed in their confessions as something which must be received. I have a theory about this, and may write on it in a future post. However, I will note that this difference between the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession is one of the primary reasons that I affirm the Westminster tradition, rather than the Continental. It seems to me that the Westminster tradition, at least in this area, more closely and accurately reflects the principle of Sola Scriptura which is central to Reformed thought. The concern I have with my interlocutors (most of whom are Westminsterians) is exactly the issue I have here. Just as they are making the Athanasian Creed a rule of faith by which to measure my orthodoxy (and condemn me, ironically in contradiction to the Westminster Confession), so also do I think that the enshrinement of the Athanasian Creed —or the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed for that matter— as an arbiter of orthodoxy, is a violation of the principle of Sola Scriptura.

  1. Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 102.

SBLGNT, Robinson/Pierpont, and the Majority Text

One thing that I commonly hear repeated in discussions between Textus Receptus and Critical Text advocates is the idea that modern text critics always, or nearly always, favor the readings found in the oldest manuscripts as opposed to the readings found in the majority text.

Now, it’s not an exact study, but this generally means that the Robinson/Pierpont text represents the majority text while Critical Texts represent a different reading.

I contacted Michael Holmes, who is arguably an heir of Bruce Metzger, and the publisher of the recent Society of Biblical Literature Greek New Testament. He is also a friend and was my Greek professor in college.

The SBLGNT apparatus is slightly different from other critical apparatuses in that rather than explain which manuscripts contain which readings, it instead shows which major Critical Texts contain which readings. The four major Critical Texts he compares are Westcott-Hort, Tregelles, NA28/27, and Robinson/Pierpont. Generally speaking the RP favors the majority/Byzantine text type. The WH, Treg, and NA28/27 tend to favor the Alexandrian text type. For this reason the RP tends to be closer to the TR, while the other three usually depart from the TR.

Back to the original claim. The original claim is that modern Text Critics always, or nearly always, favor the oldest texts. This is the case, so says the TR advocate, even when there is a vast majority of readings in the manuscript traditions which differ.

However, as is always the case with sweeping statements, a single exception disproves a universal claim. While it is true that the careful TR advocate will not claim this as a universal fact, I have far too often interacted with TR advocates who are not quite so careful.

Back to Dr Holmes and the SBLGNT. Because of his unique apparatus, it is quite easy to see instances where Holmes chooses the same reading as the Robinson/Pierpont do, as opposed to WH, Treg, and NA28/27. There are 56 such instances.

Now, I know that this doesn’t prove conclusively that Holmes ever favors the Majority/Byzantine text type over the Alexandrian (which presumably represents the earliest manuscripts in most cases) it does serve as a handy response to the sweeping claims of the TR advocate. If Holmes and RP chose the Byzantine, then Holmes —IE a modern text critic in the tradition of Metzger— has chosen the Byzantine text type over the Alexandrian. If Holmes and RP chose the Alexandrian text type, then WH, Treg, and NA28/27 —IE modern text critics in the tradition of Metzger— have chosen the Byzantine text type over the Alexandrian. In either case it disproves the sweeping claim.

Although most of the instances consist of a single word, of particular importance is Romans 16:24 where WH, Treg, and NA28/27 omit the verse entirely while Holmes and RP include it. According to Bruce Metzger.

The earliest and best witnesses omit v. 24.[1]

So here we have an explicit instance of a modern Text Critic (Holmes) siding with the Majority/Byzantine text as opposed to simply siding with the earliest witnesses.

Beyond that, there are also a number of cases where one of the three critical texts agree with RP against the other two, and 46 instances where Holmes prefers a reading that all four other editions reject.

This conclusively disproves the claim that modern Text Critics always opt for the oldest reading, even in the face of overwhelming numbers of manuscripts in the Byzantine text type.

  1. Roger Omanson, A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006), 324.