ART. X.—The History of the Christian church, from the Ascension of Jesus Christ to the Conversion of Constantine. By the Rev. Edward Burton, D.D. 1836.

[British Critic, vol. 19, July 1836.]

{209} THE unexpected and immature death of the highly accomplished writer of this volume, is one of those events which have tended of late years to change the tone of opinion prevailing in the University to which he belonged, and to introduce into it for good and for evil the characteristics of a new generation. Dr. Burton is the third in succession of Divinity Professors, who have been cut off in the beginning, or in the fulness of their labours and usefulness; men of great consideration in the place, who, doubtless, were they now alive, would take a principal part in the direction of the University in the stormy times seemingly before it. Few men of late years have had the extended influence of Dr. Hodson, or the popularity with junior men of Dr. Lloyd, Bishop of Oxford, both of whom were removed at a time when the Church itself, if not the scene of their previous reputation, seemed likely to feel the impression of their minds. In like manner, the death of Dr. Elmsley took place when he had just entered upon duties to which the careful and silent studies of years had recommended him, and was about to devote to the service of the University the habits of precise thought, the composure of mind, gentleness of bearing, and gifts and attainments of a more striking character, which were discernible by all who knew him ever so little. Professors Mills and Nicoll, are additional instances, in late years, of rising abilities and erudition, cut short in their career by an (humanly speaking) untimely stroke. Such successive losses may, for what we know, be common at all times; but, whether common or not, they cannot happen without changing the character of a place, if there be room for change. And such seems to have been the effect of them in the University in which they have occurred; almost all the distinguished men enumerated were more or less specimens of a school which seems for many years to have had prevalence, or rather supreme sway in the place, so as even to constitute the existing academical body itself. Since quiet days have succeeded in Oxford, to political feuds and parties, from the latter part of the last century almost down to the recent passing of the Emancipation Bills, elegant scholarship and literature have been the main road to distinction, and an abstinence from subjects purely ecclesiastical, or even an indisposition towards them, the characteristic, or at least the accidental property of the gentleman and divine. Some of the most eminent members of the Episcopal Bench at this moment are instances of the {210} truth of this remark, at the time they were promoted; and what they were in younger days, such were the individuals above-mentioned They were learned in the languages, they were men of classical attainments, of various accomplishments; they were loved and revered in private; but they either were in no sense theologians, or they added theology to their other attainments, with little concern to ground themselves in it as a science. There was in their day little of political or religious commotion to draw away their minds from criticism and literature, or to make theology much more than a theoretical or amateur pursuit. The Socinian and Predestinarian controversies, and the external evidences, almost exhausted the range of divinity; and though the sagacity of Bishop Lloyd discerned the renewal of hostilities with the Romanists in prospect, and began, in this very Review [Note 1], to prepare for defence, he was not allowed time to do much more than direct attention to a conflict of which he himself was to be spared the toil.

If there was any one who might be deemed an exception to these remarks, it was the lamented divine who has led to them. He was unquestionably, not only variously read in classical and modern literature, but deeply versed in the writings of the fathers. Always excepting one venerated individual, whose name will at once suggest itself to Oxford men, he had above all men reputation for patristical learning, a reputation which belonged rather to the seventeenth century than to our own. Yet it may be doubted whether even he was not better acquainted with the writings of Christian antiquity, as historical records, or depositaries of facts, or again in their bearing upon one or two important modern questions, than in themselves, in their great fundamental principles, and their peculiar character and spirit, or what is sometimes called their [ethos]. There was nothing in the circumstances of the day to send him to their works as a revelation of times, feelings and principles gone by; and his study in consequence was far from embracing even an abstract knowledge of their views. While, then, his reading spoke forcibly for the loyalty and devotion of his heart towards those prophets of the ancient truth, and tended much to encourage younger men in the study of them, yet it scarcely separated him in mental characteristics from that classical school to which we have above referred him.

But Dr. Burton's death is remarkable in another point of view. He was not only an University man; he was an active parish priest, and emphatically a religious man. We mean a man who had the heart and the opportunity to evidence sincere and practical {211} religious views; and consequently, abstract and inoperative as might be his theological reading, he was necessarily forced by his very seriousness and earnestness into the adoption of a definite line of action, at least during the recent critical position of the University. He might not perhaps make his ecclesiastical learning bear upon his conduct; but a determinate line and a decided conduct he could not forbear adopting; he was too religious to forbear it, and the form of religious opinion which he chose was that which according to all appearances is likely to prevail in the high places of the Church, unless, which is not improbable, some violent convulsion throw all its interests into disorder. As the school of Waterland succeeded to that of Bull, in consequence of the exigencies of the times, which brought into notice men of a more Protestant complexion, (if we may be allowed a catechresis in the use of the word); so, according to all appearance, if things go smooth, we shall find a still more modern divinity necessary to harmonize with those secondary systems in religion and education to which the policy of the day is tending. The probability is that the influential places in the Church will be held by men of a widely different stamp from those who have hitherto gone by the designation of high Churchmen. That clear and inflexible adherence to rule and precedent, which is called by its enemies stiffness and narrowness of mind, but which saved the Church during the last century from the gulf of Ultra-Protestantism, is melting away under the influence of feelings which might rightly be called charitable, did they answer in the long run. We are likely to have men in station and authority, not openly latitudinarian, but accessible to all sorts of impressions from without, and deficiently acquainted with the peculiarities and excellences of the system they administer. Unexceptionable in doctrine themselves, except as being tinged with the popular religion of the day, they will give their confidence and their preferment to men inferior to themselves, and as these parties in turn will bestow their own patronage on persons who come short proportionably of themselves, there is danger of the Church being overrun with objectionable principles, while the first authors of it are amiable, and on the whole orthodox men. When we class the late Professor among these, it is not as forgetting the noble stand he made for Christian truth in 1834, when, at the head of the tutorial body, he drew up that distinct and impressive avowal of the dependance of education on religion, which was ultimately subscribed by two thousand members of convocation. Such a man, if indulgent, would certainly be so within limits, beyond which he would be inflexible; still his humility and unaffected simplicity of mind were such, he was so unsuspicious of others, {212} so liberal and expansive in his feelings, so much better endowed with candour and generosity than with a clear apprehension of our ecclesiastical position, that it is easy to see where on the whole he would have taken his stand, had he been raised to those higher preferments which were all but his when he died. His loss is the greatest, perhaps, which his principles could have sustained in Oxford. We think it no disparagement to the talents and virtues of those who remain as upholders of them, to say that it is irreparable. His equal or his second cannot be found in the combined qualifications of extensive reading, unwearied diligence, promptness and despatch, parochial activity, kindliness of heart, and general popularity. No man so considerable ever bore his faculties more meekly. No man descended more entirely to the level of those with whom he conversed, submitted to their waywardness, or sympathized with their peculiarities. No man thought less of self, laboured less for the appearance of consistency, or feared less the confession of doubt or error. No man less excited in others those feelings which tend to jealousy, distance, and disunion. In his death, what may be called the moderate section of the University, have lost perhaps the only man who was qualified to head and lead them, or to serve as a restraint on persons of keener or more eccentric minds. The consequences of it have been seen sooner than might have been anticipated; his party have in effect vanished with him, and those who maintained more and maintained less have come into collision.

If it were not for the hazard of intruding upon subjects beyond human sagacity, something might be said in connexion with the above remarks, on the indications which the existing events furnish of an approaching conflict, sooner or later, between what are commonly considered extreme opinions. As decks are cleared before a fight, so in the field of ecclesiastical politics, those who were hitherto middle men, are either taken out of the way, or retreat to this or that side in the struggle. The crisis may be delayed an indefinite time by external events; a foreign war might call off all our thoughts in another direction; or the return of the Conservatives to power might partially suspend the natural operation of the principles at work, and compose the surface of the Church into an apparent calm. Still, whether by a secret underground influence, or by outward manifestation, what are called extreme opinions will spread on either side, and sooner or later will join issue, and find a solution. The highly to be revered school of divinity, commonly called high Church, has lately been bereaved of its brightest ornament, in the admirable Prelate who filled the See of Durham; while it is fast losing ground in the Christian Knowledge Society. As to the party {213} who seem to be succeeding to their power, and are full of hope and triumph in consequence, they have no internal consistency, clearness of principle, strength of mind, or weight of ability sufficient to keep the place they may perhaps win. They have the seeds of dissolution in them, and are already breaking into pieces. As Whigs and Tories have disappeared from the stage of politics, so the high Church section of the Establishment, to which we owe so great a debt in years past, is almost broken up, and the Low party has a mortal disease upon it.

It has been thought best to make the above remarks on the present condition and prospects of the Church, in frank, perhaps in blunt language—but it must not be thence supposed that we view the state of things lightly, or range ourselves on neither side of the contest; but we wish to draw our readers' attention simply to our ecclesiastical condition itself, as the first step in their setting about to form a judgment upon it.

The work before us, published under the direction of the Literature Committee attached to the Christian Knowledge Society, is such as might have been anticipated from its lamented author. It presents a luminous and distinct account of the fortunes of the Church during its three first centuries, condensed into a small volume without effort, and abounding in learning without display. It is the composition of one who has full mastery over his materials, and (as it were) got his subject by heart; and it will doubtless be of the greatest value to those who are already interested in church history, and either desire further information, or a synoptical view of what is familiar to them. These we consider to be its chief merits; its deficiency on the other hand, if it must be noticed, lies in a want of unity in the history, in the absence of plan or scope, the neglect to interpret the events and facts which occur. This indeed is a very tolerable fault, especially in this age, when scarcely a man can prevail on himself to write without some preconceived theory in his mind, or some striking but peculiar view, which he takes care to herald forth at every pause in the narrative, and to use for the perversion rather than elucidation of its details. As times go, it is a relief and a refreshment to read a work, which is not straining after novelties, and torturing men and things on the Procrustean bed of what the author perhaps calls a "simple principle." As it is pleasant to sit by a smooth river, and gaze upon its stream equably flowing by, so is Dr. Burton's work a balm and solace to those who have busied themselves in many thoughts, and are weary of controversy and speculation. But this very quality which recommends it to the harassed student, is somewhat a disadvantage to it, considered as intended for popular use. It is better indeed to be {214} sound and accurate, than merely amusing; we do not wish history to be made either a romance or a diatribe, to be poeticized or philosophized: still to interest and to instruct are main objects in its composition, and here we consider Dr. Burton's work, with all its excellence, to be somewhat defective. There is too little of moral and of lesson, we do not mean deduced, but deducible from the course of affairs as he presents them. Yet even in this respect his work is a very considerable advance upon Mosheim's history; which is as dry and sapless as if the Church were some fossil remains of an antediluvian era, lifeless itself and without any practical bearing on ourselves. Nay it is in this respect an advance even on the writings of the present very learned Bishop of Lincoln, who has apparently been led by an accurate taste, critical exactness, and dislike of theory or paradox, into an over-estimation of facts, as such, separated from their meaning and consequences. Dr. Burton had much of this critical accuracy also; yet we should rather attribute this same peculiarity, as far as it is found in this and other of his works, to the cause above indicated, viz. to his having apparently taken up theology without such an accurate grounding in its principles as would enable him to speak confidently as a moralist or divine.

Dr. Burton commences his history from the day of Pentecost, which he conceives to be a truer date for the foundation of the Christian Church, than that of our Lord's public ministry. The transactions of the first century occupy not very far from half the volume, and consist principally of the details of the apostles' own labours. The usual subjects follow; the martyrdom of Ignatius, the spread of Gnosticism, the Paschal controversy, the Persecutions, Montanus, Theodotus and Praxeas, in the second century; and in the third, Tertullian and Origen, the Platonists, Cyprian and the Rebaptizers, Novatus and Novatian, Dionysius of Alexandria, Manicheism, and the gradual victories of the Gospel over the powers of the world. The history ends with the conversion of Constantine. It will be the most respectful course to our author now to put before the reader some passages from his work, with such brief observations of our own as they may suggest. Dr. Burton thus manfully states his view of the tone to be adopted by the ecclesiastical historian.

"I wish, however, distinctly to state, that there are some points upon which the ecclesiastical historian may be allowed to have made up his mind, without being charged with partiality. Thus, he is not required to speak of Christianity as if it was merely one of the numerous forms of religion which had appeared in the world. He is to write as a Christian, addressing himself to Christians; and as be is not called upon to prove {215} Christianity to be true, so he may assume that his renders are acquainted with its doctrines. In speaking, therefore, of the first propagation of the Gospel, I have said little concerning the nature of those new opinions which were then, for the first time, delivered to the world. A contemporary heathen historian would have thought it necessary to describe them; they would have formed an important feature in the history of the times; but a Christian historian does not feel called upon to explain the principles of the doctrine of Christ. He supposes his readers not only to know these principles, but to believe them; and though the differences among Christians form a necessary part of the History of the Church, it is sufficient to say of Christianity itself, as first preached by the apostles, that it is the religion contained in the Bible."—pp. 15, 16.

And he thus forcibly describes that peculiarity in Christianity, which brought upon it persecution from the heathen.

"The Greeks and the Romans had long been acquainted with the Jews; but they looked upon their religion as a foolish superstition, and treated their peculiar customs with contempt. This treatment might be provoking to individual Jews, but it generally ensured for them toleration as a people; and hence they were seldom prevented from establishing a residence in any town within the Roman empire. The Jews repaid this indulgence by taking little pains to make proselytes. In their hearts they felt as much contempt for the superstitions of the heathen, as the latter professed openly for the Jews; but they were content to be allowed to follow their own occupations, and to worship the God of their fathers without molestation. The Christians might have enjoyed the same liberty, if their principles had allowed it; and for some time the heathen could not, or would not, consider them as anything else than a sect of the Jews. But a Christian could not be sincere without wishing to make proselytes. He could not see religious worship paid to a false God, without trying to convince the worshipper that he was following a delusion. The Divine Founder of Christianly did not intend it to be tolerated, but to triumph. It was to be the universal, the only religion; and though the apostles, like the rest of their countrymen, could have borne with personal insults and contempt, they had but one object in view, and that was to plant the cross of Christ upon the ruins of every other religion.

"This could not fail, sooner or later, to expose the preachers of the Gospel to persecution; for every person who was interested in keeping up the old religions, would look upon the Christians as his personal enemies."—pp. 83, 84.

In this extract we see the same high religious principle avowed by the author, which led to his strenuous effort in favour of dogmatic religion in 1834. In the document then, drawn up by him, he carried out the protest, borne in the above passage in favour of Christianity in the general, to maintenance of the creed of {216} orthodoxy in particular. The words to which we allude are as follows:—

"They [the Declarationists] wish to state in the first place, that the University of Oxford has always considered religion to be the foundation of all education; and they cannot themselves be parties to any system of instruction, which does not rest upon this foundation. They also protest against the notion, that religion can be taught on the vague and comprehensive principle of admitting persons of every creed. When they speak of religion, they mean the doctrines of the Gospel, as revealed in the Bible, and as maintained by the Church of Christ in its best and purest times," &c.

It has been much the fashion at various times, to speak as if Christianity was becoming better and better understood as time went on, and its professors more enlightened and more virtuous. In saying this, we do not allude to the creed of Montanus, Manichee or Mahomet, or of the Gnostics, each of whom professed to be bringing to perfection that system which the apostles began indeed, but only rudely understood; nor again of the St. Simonians; nor of those religionists of the sixteenth century and their descendants now, who teach that the visible Church was lost in error for an indefinite period, and then emerged into purity and light such as Irenĉus himself did not enjoy [Note 2]; but of men of the present day, who are considered especially men of the world, well-judging and practical men, and who assume it as an axiom in all their reasonings, or rather as what Aristotle calls an enthymematic [gnome], that the nineteenth century (i.e. because the nineteenth) is superior to the first and second. We have been told much of late years about the early receptacles of religious truth having corrupted it by the pagan feelings or heathen learning with which they had been previously filled; or the testimony of the fathers has been considered as the mere declarations of individual opinion, not as assertions of the fact of certain widely spread and generally received doctrines. Their comments on Scripture, however unanimous in various times and countries, have been considered but glosses and fancies; as if it were the easiest thing in the world to get Jew and Gentile, bond and free, learned and unlearned, Roman and Alexandrian, to speak the same thing and to be joined together in one judgment,—as if Scripture itself did not give us an instance of the difficulty of making even "two false witnesses" "agree together," in traducing Him whose doctrine it is considered so easy to deface. The following {217} admirable remarks are a reply to this gratuitous hypothesis, which, instead of having proved to us, we are unceremoniously called upon to disprove.

"There is, perhaps, a difficulty in steering between the opposite extremes of attributing too much or too little value to ecclesiastical antiquity. It is easy to say, on the one hand, that a stream is purest at no great distance from its source; and, on the other, that the world is much more enlightened now than it was eighteen centuries ago. The latter statement, however, may be fully acknowledged to be true, and yet may prove nothing as to the weight which ought to be given to the authority of the earlier ages.

"We do not appeal to the primitive Christians for their knowledge or their opinions of matters upon which the world is now more enlightened; but a question arises, whether the world is really more enlightened upon those points with which the primitive Christians were specially concerned. These points are the doctrines which are essential to be believed as contained in the Gospel, and the method which is most likely to be successful for spreading them through the world. Whether these two points were imperfectly understood by the early Christians, and whether they have received more light from the discoveries of succeeding ages, are questions which it is not difficult to answer, if we rightly understand the nature of the Christian revelation.

"The one word Revelation seems not suited to lead us to expect, that the matters which have been revealed would require, or could even admit, successive illustrations and improvements, from the powers of the human mind becoming more developed. If Christianity had been merely a system of moral precepts, which human reason had imagined and arranged, the system might undoubtedly be rendered more and more perfect as the world continued to advance. But, if the scheme of Christian redemption was not only revealed by God, but every part of it was effected by the agency of God, without man knowing anything concerning it until it was thus effected and revealed, it seems impossible that such a system could be modified or improved by later and successive discoveries.

"Now it will not be denied, that the apostles themselves had the fullest and clearest understanding of the doctrines which they preached. It might, perhaps, be said, when their inspiration is taken into the account, that no Christians have had their minds equally enlightened by a knowledge of the Gospel; so that the revelation was, in its very commencement, full and complete; and to say, that we are more enlightened now as to the truths of the Gospel, would be the same as to say, that a ray of light is purer and brighter when it has reached the surface of the earth, than when it was first emitted from the sun. We must also recollect that the doctrine which the apostles preached, namely Justification by Faith in the death of Christ, could not be more or less complete at one period than another. It was complete, when Christ died, or rather when he rose again, and when God consented that faith in his death and resurrection should justify a sinner. The fist person {218} who embraced this offer of reconciliation, at the preaching of the apostles, was as fully justified, and as fully admitted into the Christian covenant, as any person from that time to the present, or from now to the end of the world. The terms of salvation are precisely the same now as they were in the infancy of the Gospel. The only written record which we have of this last Revelation was composed by the persons to whom it was made; human reason has added nothing to the letter or the spirit of it: and whoever believes the doctrines which it contains, possesses all the knowledge which can be possessed concerning the salvation of his soul.

"This being the case, it would seem to follow, that we have nothing else to do but to ascertain exactly what the doctrine is which was revealed, and, having ascertained it, to embrace it. This is, in fact, allowed by a vast majority of those persons who call themselves Christians. The notion, that Christianity admits of being improved as the world becomes more enlightened, can hardly be said to be entertained by any persons who really understand the Gospel; and though Christians are unhappily divided upon many fundamental points, they all agree in referring to the Scriptures, as containing the original Revelation; and each sect or party professes to believe its own interpretation of the Scriptures to be the best. It becomes, therefore, of great importance to know which of these conflicting interpretations was adopted by the early Church; and if it can be proved that any doctrine was universally believed in the age immediately following that of the apostles, the persons who hold such a doctrine now would naturally lay great weight upon this confirmation of their opinions.

"It cannot fairly be said, that, in making this appeal to antiquity, we are attaching too much importance to human authority, or that we are lessening that reverence which ought to be paid exclusively to the revealed Word of God. It is because we wish to pay exclusive reverence to the Scriptures, that we endeavour so anxiously to ascertain their meaning; and it is only where our own interpretation differs from that of others, that we make an appeal to some third and impartial witness. We think that we find this witness in the early Christians, in those who lived not long after the time of the apostles; and though we fully allow that they were fallible, like ourselves, and though in sound critical judgment, their age may have been inferior to our own, yet there are many reasons why their testimony should be highly valued.

"In the first place, they lived very near to the first promulgation of the Gospel. Even to a late period in the second century, there must have been many persons living who had conversed with the apostles, or with companions of the apostles. This would make it less likely that any doubts would arise upon points of doctrine, and, at the same time, more difficult for any corruption to be introduced. The simplicity of the Gospel was not in so much danger from the pride of learning and the love of disputation, when Christians were daily exposed to persecution and death, and when the fiery trial purified the Church from insincere or ambitious members. The language in which the New Testament was written made the early Christians better judges of the {219} meaning of any passages than ourselves; for Greek continued for many centuries to be the language of the learned throughout the greater part of the Roman empire, and the Fathers of the three first centuries wrote much more in Greek than in Latin. These are some of the reasons why an appeal is made to the primitive Christians in matters of faith; not that we receive any doctrine, merely because this or that Father has delivered it in his writings, but because the persons who lived in those days had the best means of knowing whether any article of faith had been really delivered by the apostles or not. And this testimony of the early Church becomes so much the stronger, if we find, as the following pages will show, that, for at least three centuries, there was a perfect unanimity among all the different churches upon essential points of doctrine."—p. 8-12.

We offer no apology to our readers for this long extract, as they will doubtless be desirous to know the sentiments of a writer of Dr. Burton's views upon the subject. The principle on which we consult antiquity is most satisfactorily stated in it; not less satisfactory is the application of it on the whole, except indeed a one slight respect, which shall be noticed in the sequel, but which does not interfere with the decisiveness of the testimony afforded in it against the Socinianizing spirit of the day, a spirit which in one instance [Note 3] has proceeded so far as to condemn St. Ignatius for his celebrated Epistles; and next to ascribe to the Apostle Barnabas what the writer calls "a tissue of obscenity and absurdity which would disgrace the Hindoo mythology."

In the following passages we find the like clear and decisive statements on an article of faith, which has of late been much canvassed, that of the Holy Catholic Church.

"The unity of the Church had not as yet (A.D. 200) been broken by any open secession from the whole body of Christians. This body, though consisting of many members, and dispersed throughout the world, was yet one and undivided, if we view it with, reference to doctrines, or to the form of ecclesiastical government. Every church had its own spiritual head or bishop, and was independent of every other church, with respect to its own internal regulations and laws. There was, however, a connexion, more or less intimate, between neighbouring churches, which was a consequence, in some degree, of the geographical or civil divisions of the empire. Thus the churches of one province, such as Achaia, Egypt, Cappadocia, &c., formed a kind of union, and the bishop of the capital, particularly if his see happened to be of Apostolic foundation, acquired a precedence in rank and dignity over the rest. This superiority was often increased by the bishop of the capital (who was called in later times, the metropolitan,) having actually planted the church in smaller and more distant places; so that the Mother Church, as it might literally be termed, continued to feel a natural and parental regard for the churches founded by itself. These churches, however, {220} were wholly independent in matters of internal jurisdiction; though it was likely that there would be a resemblance, in points even of slight importance, between churches of the same province ...

"But early in the second century we find proofs of churches, not only in neighbouring provinces, but in distant parts of the world, taking pains to preserve the bond of unity, and to show themselves members of one common head.—The term Catholic, or Universal, as applied to the Church of Christ, may be traced almost to the time of the apostles; and every person who believed in Christ was a member of the Catholic Church, because he was a member of some particular or national Church, which was in communion with the whole body. We have already seen instances of this communion being preserved or interrupted between the members of different churches: and the anxiety of the early Christians upon this point is shown by the custom of bishops, as soon as they were elected, sending a notification of their appointment to distant churches. When this official announcement had been made, any person who was the bearer of a letter from his bishop, was admitted to communion with the church in any country which he visited: but these communicatory letters, as they were called, were certain to be denied him if any suspicion was entertained as to the unsoundness of his faith.—It may be supposed that these precautions were very effectual in preserving the unity of the Church, and in preventing diversity of doctrine. The result was, as has been already observed, that up to the end of the second century no schism had taken place among the great body of believers. There was no church in any country which was not in communion with the Catholic or Universal Church; and there was no church in any particular town or province which was divided into sects and parties."—pp. 288-291.

The following passage is too important to be omitted, though it retraces in some measure the ground gone over in the last.

"The term Catholic was applied to the church, as comprising the whole body of believers throughout the world, as early as the middle of the second century, and perhaps much earlier: and the preceding history has shown us how anxious the heads of the churches felt, in every country, that their members should hold communion with each other, and that this communion should not be extended to any who held sentiments at variance with those of the whole body. During the three first centuries, if a Christian went from any one part of the world to another, from Persia to Spain, or from Pontus to Carthage, he was certain to find his brethren holding exactly the same opinions with himself upon all points which they both considered essential to salvation; and wherever he travelled he was sure of being admitted to communion: but on the other hand, if the Christians of his own country had put him out of communion for any errors of belief or conduct, he found himself exposed to the same exclusion wherever he went; and so careful were the churches upon this point, that they gave letters or certificates to any of their members, which ensured them an admission to communion with their brethren in other countries.—The first dispute of any moment was that concerning the Paschal festival: but churches which differed upon this {221} point, continued to hold communion with each other; and the bishop of Rome was thought decidedly wrong when he made this difference a cause of refusing communion. So strong a measure was only considered necessary, when the difference involved an essential point of doctrine," ... "Thus Theodotus, who did not believe the divinity of Christ, was excluded from communion when he went to Rome. The same church excluded Praxeas for denying the personality of the Son and Holy Ghost: and when a doctrine somewhat similar began to spread in the Alexandrian diocese, the bishop who opposed it was so desirous to know that he was acting in agreement with other churches, that he sent copies of his own letters to Rome." ... "It is in this way that we are able to ascertain, at different periods of history, the sentiments entertained by the church, on various points of doctrine. We have also the works of the early Christian writers, which show that the Church maintained the same doctrines during the whole of the period which we have been considering. If we take any particular opinion, Sabellianism for instance, we know for certain that it was not the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Whenever it was brought forward by Praxeas, Noetus, Beryllus, or Sabellius himself, it was uniformly condemned, and that not merely by one writer, or by one church, but by the consentient voice of all the Eastern and Western churches. If we wish to know whether the divinity of Christ was an article of belief at the period which we have been considering, we find no instance of its being denied till the end of the second century, when Theodotus was put out of communion by the Roman Church for denying his belief in it. A few years later, Dionysius of Alexandria was obliged to defend himself from the charge of not believing it: and all the Eastern churches put forth their declaration from Antioch, that not only did they all maintain this article of belief themselves, but that it had been maintained by the Catholic Church from the beginning. —Creeds and confessions of faith were, during this period, and especially the former part of it, short and simple. While there were no heretics, there was no need to guard against heresy. Antidotes are only given to persons who have taken poison, or who are likely to take it: neither do we use precautions against contagion, when no disease is to be caught. The case, however, is altered, when the air has become infected, and thousands are dying all around us. It is then necessary to call in the physician, and guard against danger. The case was the same with the church, when she saw her children in peril from new and erroneous doctrines. When a member wished to be admitted, it was her duty to examine whether he was infected or not. The former tests were no longer sufficient. Words and phrases, which had hitherto borne but one meaning, were now found to admit of several; and the bishops and clergy were too honest to allow a man to say one thing with his tongue, while in his heart he meant another. It was thus that creeds became lengthened, and clauses were added to meet the presumptuous speculations of human reason. But the fault (if fault it can be called) was with the heretics, not with the church. Her great object from the beginning had been unity."—pp. 424-428.

We have devoted more space to extracts illustrative of Dr. {222} Burton's ecclesiastical principles than we should have thought advisable, were the author any other than Dr. Burton; but his authority is such that we are not unwilling to produce it in behalf of doctrines which are at the present looked on in some quarters with not a little suspicion. The above passages will serve also to instance, to those who are unacquainted with his writings, the late Professor's perspicuous and easy, or, we might even call it, pleasant way of laying out a view before his readers, without any of that elaborateness or diffuseness of language which is frequently the failing of learned men.

The extract we shall presently give contains Dr. Burton's account of the income of the primitive clergy, and the mode of raising and apportioning it. Nothing is so common with Dissenters at this time as to defend their own Voluntary System by the custom, as they suppose it, of the Primitive Church; yet nothing surely is so unfair. The first ages have nothing in them either of the name or nature of voluntariness. No Christian system can be voluntary; except we mean to say, that it ever depends on our free will to receive it or not, and to be judged accordingly. The payments in the early Church were voluntary in that, and that sense only, in which our service to God is such. The word then, as not legitimately bearing this meaning, is an odious one, and becomes those and those only who think they may pass from Church to meeting, as they feel inclined. Nor was there any thing of the nature or the mischief of the Voluntary System of this day in the primitive economy. The mischief of it lies materially in this; that, when it is in operation, a preacher is paid in proportion to his popularity, so that a bonus is held out to him for flattering or indulging his audience. But the early Church considered the special gift of a Christian minister to lie, not in preaching, but in ministration of the sacraments, which was one and the same in all who were intrusted with it, and depended for its effect on the faith of the recipient, not on the talents of him who exercised it. Here is the true doctrine of salvation by faith, which the very men who make such a clamour about nowadays, show by their mode of reasoning and teaching they understand least of all mankind. It is said, "Thy faith hath made thee whole," not a running after preachers, not the eloquence, the fervour, or the knowledge of Scripture, or of the human heart, possessed by this or that individual. Nothing is required in the Christian system but God's act and our act; there is no medium interposed such that one man is better than another in his exercise of it. This minister and that minister are but instruments, or rather but the same instrument, where faith asks, and God answers. This is what the early Church held, {223} and in consequence, did a congregation demand it ever so much, they could not, as they themselves knew, in any way, or by whatever potent bribes, make their minister modify according to their wayward taste, the nature or the quality of that gift which God alone gave and they but passively conveyed, or act in rivalry with his brethren to please them. But not only so; the contributions of the faithful were thrown, as the following passage will show, into a common fund, from which the clergy were paid at the bishop's discretion. Where the bishop had the apportioning of the clergy's incomes, the people could make no discrimination between one of them and another. This is not our usage at this day, nor are we recommending it; but surely it was very different from the Voluntary System. So far, however, we would even go in the way of suggestion; in the noble design under agitation of building additional Churches in the metropolis, might it not be as well that some such rule were observed, to hinder those most mischievous inducements to popular preaching which the existing system of chapel building has fostered? Might not, for instance, the pew-rents be thrown into a common fund, to be dispensed by trustees or others, upon equitable and religious principles? Speaking of Natalis, or Natalius, a confessor who had lapsed to heresy, and taken the episcopate in it, at a monthly salary of 120 denarii, Dr. Burton says,—

"The fact of Natalius receiving a monthly payment for his services, may throw some light upon the method which was then established for the maintenance of the clergy; for though Natalius, in consequence of his heresy, was not at this time in communion with the Church, we may suppose that his followers adopted the custom which was then prevalent with the orthodox clergy. The principle had been expressly asserted by St. Paul, as well as supported by the analogy of the Jewish priesthood, and by the reason of the case itself, that the ministers of' Christ should be maintained by their flocks. The apostles availed themselves of this privilege; and all those who were ordained to the ministry by the apostles, received their maintenance from the congregation in which they ministered. The common fund, which was collected by subscriptions from the believers, supplied this maintenance; and the poorer members, such as widows, and those who were destitute or afflicted, received relief from the same charitable sources. We have no means of ascertaining the proportions in which this common fund was divided between the ministers of the word and the poor: and it appears certain that the distribution must have varied in different churches, according to the amount of sums contributed, and the number of applications for relief.—One fact has been preserved, that the management of the common fund was at the discretion of the bishop, who appointed the presbyters and deacons to their offices, as well as paid to them their stipends. The primitive and apostolic custom was preserved of the money being actually distributed to the poor by the hands of the deacons: but the sums allotted to {224} the respective claimants were settled by the bishop, who was probably assisted in this work by the presbyters of his church. The bishop himself received his maintenance from this common fund: and we know that in later times a fourth part of the whole was considered to belong to him. But when this fourfold division existed, one of the parts was appropriated to the repairs of the church; an expense which was not required, or in a very small degree, for at least the two first centuries, when the Christians had not beep permitted to erect churches, but were in the habit of meeting at private houses. A small sum must always have been necessary for the purposes of congregational worship, even when thus simply and privately conducted: but we may conclude that the remainder of the common stock, after this moderate deduction, was divided between the bishop, his clergy, and the poor: although it does not follow that the proportions were equal, or always invariable. Natalius, as we have seen, a sectarian bishop, residing in Rome, received 120 denarii for a month's salary; and though we cannot suppose that the fund which was raised by a single sect, and that apparently not a large one, was equal to that which belonged to the Church; yet it is not improbable that the supporters of Natalius would be anxious to secure to him as good an income as that which was enjoyed by the bishops of the Church. If this was the case, it follows that the bishops, at the end of the second century, received a payment which equalled 70l. a year: or if it be thought that this cannot be taken as an average of the incomes of all bishops, which were certain to vary in different churches, we may at least assume that the income of the bishop of Rome was not less than the amount which has now been mentioned."—pp. 276-279.

As we have above alluded to the project for building additional Churches in London, it may be instructive to contrast with our present liberty of worship the distress and peril in which the early saints met for prayer and praise. We have no obstacle at this moment from without; they had none from within.

"He" [Alexander Severus] "may be said to have expressly tolerated their public worship: for when the keepers of a tavern claimed a piece of ground that had been occupied by the Christians, the emperor adjudged it to the latter, adding the remark, that it was better for God to be worshipped there in any manner, than for the ground to be used for a pothouse.

"The last anecdote might lead to an interesting inquiry into the period when the Christians first began to meet in churches, or at least to have buildings set apart for public worship. They probably acquired this liberty earlier in some countries than in others: but we can hardly doubt that some such buildings were possessed by them in Rome, during the reign of the present emperor. We know that, for many years, they met in each others' houses. Concealment, on such occasions, was absolutely necessary; and we may judge of the perils with which they were beset, as well as of the firmness of their faith, when we know that the excavations in the neighbourhood of Rome, which were formed by the digging of stone, were used for a long time by the Christians, as places {225} of religious meetings. In these dark and dismal catacombs, which may still be seen, and which still bear traces of their former occupants, the early martyrs and confessors poured forth their prayers to God, and thanked their Redeemer, that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. Here also the remains of their dead were interred: and it was long before the intolerance of their enemies allowed the Christians to breathe a healthy air, or enjoy the light of heaven, while they were engaged in their sacred duties. This indulgence appears to have been gained at Rome during the period of comparative peace, which began on the death of Septimius Severus: but since Elagabalus prohibited every kind of public worship, except that of the Sun, we may perhaps conclude, that few, if any, religious buildings had been possessed by the Christians, till the time when Alexander decided the case in their favour.

"At that time, they had a piece of ground belonging to them; and it appears to have been the property, not of some one individual who was a Christian, but of the whole community. It was probably bought out of the common fund, which has already been mentioned as belonging to the Christians: and the emperor's decision makes it plain, that it had been used for the purposes of public worship. It is not probable that the Christians met in the open air. The spot must, therefore, have been occupied by some building; which was either a private dwelling converted to this sacred purpose after its purchase by the Christians, or one which had been specially erected for the occasion. The latter conclusion would be the most interesting, as containing the earliest evidence of the building of churches: though it might be thought that the present edifice was rather of an inferior kind, since the opposite party intended to turn it into a tavern."—.pp. 316-318.

This transaction took place about A.D. 222—forty years later the See of Antioch had a house attached to it, which was recognized as being so by the Emperor Aurelian. On this account we the more wonder at the following sentence in the author's narrative of the times of Constantine, which seems to sink the primitive Church to the level of the Popish agitators in Ireland in this day.

"It is plain from the terms of this edict, (one of Constantine's) that the Christians had for some time been in possession of property. It speaks of houses and lands which did not belong to individuals, but to the whole body. Their possession of such property could hardly have escaped the notice of the government; but it seems to have been held in direct violation of a law of Diocletian, which prohibited corporate bodies, or associations which were not legally recognised, from, acquiring property. The Christians were certainly not a body recognized by law at the beginning of the reign of Diocletian; and it might almost be thought that this enactment was specially directed against them. But, like other laws which are founded upon tyranny, and are at variance with the first principles of justice, it is probable that this law about corporate property was evaded. We must suppose that the Christians had purchased {226} lands and houses before the law was passed: and their disregard of the prohibition may be taken as another proof that their religion had now gained so firm a footing, that the executors of the laws were obliged to connive at their being broken by so numerous a body"—pp. 418, 419.

As the volume before us is of a popular character, and upon controversial points of the history states but the conclusion to which its author had arrived, and which he has argued at length in his former works, it will not be necessary to notice any of them or examine what may be said for or against them. Every writer has a right to his own opinion in such matters, and a learned man like Dr. Burton, pre-eminently. One of these, however, we are tempted to say a few words upon, because it bears immediately upon the sacred text, and all men, not theologians only, have an interest in it. Dr. Burton considers James the Less, Bishop of Jerusalem, and brother or cousin of our Lord, as a different person from James the son of Alphĉus, the Apostle. Without wishing to dogmatize on a point of this nature, we are somewhat surprised that he has been able to acquiesce in that view. In his lectures on the first century, he rests the proof of it on the testimony of antiquity, which he says is certainly in favour of the Bishop of Jerusalem not being one of the Twelve. But in the first place we are by no means sure that the authority of the Fathers in matters of fact connected with Scripture history, is greater than that of any one at this day. The personal history of the first propagators of the Gospel seems from the first to have been almost consigned to oblivion; and it is but in accordance with the height and grandeur of the system they administered, that it should be so. Doctrinal truth was carefully guarded, and transmitted; individuals, however illustrious, were passed by. How little is known about the labours and sufferings of the Apostles! while the result of them is clear, the establishment of the Church far and wide. In consequence, the early Christian writers, in attempting to trace the history of Christ and his Apostles, had no other resource than our own, viz. the attempt to glean from the sacred text what slight hints might therein be conveyed about it; and, having no means of information distinct from ours, they may as fairly be criticised or differed with as if they lived at this day. For instance, Theodoret speaks of St. James and St. Matthew as living together, and Chrysostom of St. James being a publican; can we doubt, under the circumstances, that this belief arose from St. Matthew being called the son of Alphĉus as well as St. James? We have a parallel case in Dionysius's inquiry whether the author of the Apocalypse was the Apostle or another John. He plainly {227} knew no more of the matter than ourselves, and his opinion has no kind of authority over our belief. He argues the point critically, and ingeniously, from the structure of the book, and he comes to the conclusion that it is not the writing of St. John. As we do not feel bound in this case to adopt Dionysius's opinion, neither are we under any necessity to follow other Fathers, though they even did distinguish between James, Bishop of Jerusalem and James the Apostle. But in the next place the evidence from the Fathers seems not at all so clear, as at first sight might be thought. Dr. Burton refers to Eusebius, Epiphanius, Nyssen, Chrysostom, Theodoret, Jerome, and the author of the Constitutions; but the true reading in Eusebius seems to speak just the reverse. Chrysostom elsewhere strongly implies there were but two, not three, disciples of the name of James; and Jerome thought sometimes one way, sometimes the other. On the other hand various Fathers called James the Less an Apostle, absolutely and without restriction. Thus after all we are cast upon the text of Scripture for our information; and, though it is certain that we read of James the Less in one place, of James the son of Alphĉus in another, without any hint in those very places that the names did not belong to separate individuals; yet there is strong reason to conclude from other passages that they were but different designations of the same person. The text in the Galatians would seem decisive in the matter; "Other of the Apostles I saw none, save James the Lord's brother." If it be said that the word Apostle extended beyond the twelve, being applied to St. Paul himself and St. Barnabas, this cannot be the case in this place, for in that sense St. Paul's declaration does not hold, as he had seen St. Barnabas at the season he speaks of. Indeed it seems almost incredible that James the Less should be spoken of as he is, if he were not one of the Twelve. For instance, when St. Paul first came to Jerusalem, St. Barnabas "took him and brought him to the Apostles;" that is, as the passage above referred to informs us, to Peter and James. It is James who presides at the Council of Jerusalem; it is James before whom St. Paul lays his proceedings on his coming up to Jerusalem after his Apostolic journey; it is as brother of James that the Apostle Jude designates himself, which hardly could be, were James short of an Apostle. Further, if the author of the Catholic Epistle be not an Apostle, it will be the only exception to the rule among the books of the New Testament; the Gospel according to St. Mark and St. Luke, not only being ultimately referable to Apostles, but being a narrative of our Saviour's teaching, not the teaching of the Evangelists themselves. {228}

So much stress has been laid of late, in popular divinity, on one or two doctrines of the Gospel, apart from the rest, that it is not wonderful that Dr. Burton, a man of frank, accessible, and unsuspecting mind, and from his parochial habits especially likely to be brought under the influence of the current religion, should have sometimes worded himself in a way which he would be the first to lament, had he discovered whither it was tending. We hear frequent complaints about the evil of seclusion from pastoral labour, of learned leisure, and the like: this counterbalancing good, however, may be expected from it, that the old forms of thought and language will probably be retained in theological teaching, whatever happens in the world. The following passage will explain what we mean.

"The doctrine itself (the 'new and strange doctrine, which was opposed to the prejudices and passions of mankind,' which the Apostles had to preach,) may be explained in a few words. They were to preach faith in Christ crucified. Men were to be taught to repent of their sins and to believe in Christ, trusting to his merits alone for pardon and salvation; and those who embraced this doctrine were admitted into the Christian covenant by baptism, as a token that they were cleansed from their sins, by faith in the death of Christ: upon which admission they received the gift of the Holy Ghost, enabling them to perform works well-pleasing to God, which they could not have done by their own strength."—pp. 23, 24.

Now, if by this statement it is only meant that the doctrines specified were those elementary portions of the Gospel which in matter-of-fact the Apostles preached to the unconverted as first steps in the Christian faith, it is quite borne out by the book of Acts. Yet we cannot help fearing that most readers, instead of considering it to speak of the first truths put before the minds of those whom the Apostles addressed, will conceive it to specify those which are highest and most sacred, and in such sense the essence of the Gospel, that, they being secured, every thing really important is secured with them. They will consider that all other doctrines, however true in themselves, however high in their subject, are but secondary, and only useful as ministering to the former and easily to be dispensed with in individuals, if the former are ascertained. Not that this single passage by itself need convey this, but that it seems to do so, interpreted, as it will be, by the mode of thinking and the language of the day. At this moment especially, when the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, or Atonement, are so lightly treated in quarters where one might have hoped for better things, we regret the accident, for it is merely an accident, which makes Dr. Burton appear to put {229} those divine truths in the second place in the Christian scheme, in defence of which no late writer has been more zealous, more energetic, more unwearied than himself in former publications.

It is the same cause, a latent desire, as we conceive, to accommodate the ancient theology to the habits of this day, and to explain to his readers, in a manner level to their comprehensions, the abhorrence in which the then existing heresies were held by the early Church, which has led this most amiable and excellent man to prove the impiety of the Gnostics, not from their doctrine itself, but from the consequences of it. That doctrine directly contravenes the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation; but, as if feeling that the age would respond languidly to any charge of heresy on that score, Dr. Burton observes, what is quite true, but, as we should say, superfluous, that it indirectly denied the Atonement. He observes,—

"The name of Christ held a conspicuous place in the system of the Gnostics, but there were parts of their creed which destroyed the very foundations of the doctrine of the Gospel. Thus, while they believed the body of Jesus to be a phantom, and denied the reality of His crucifixion, they, in fact, denied their belief, in the death of Christ, and with it they gave up altogether the doctrine of Atonement."—p. 102.

He is not content with observing it once, but repeats it in a subsequent chapter:—

"He (Simon Magus) would not believe that Jesus had a real substantial body; he thought that a divine and heavenly being would never unite himself with what was earthly and material; and having heard of Christ soon after his ascension, before any written accounts of his birth and death were circulated, he formed the absurd and fanciful notion, that the body of Jesus was a mere spirit, or phantom, which only appeared to perform the functions of a man, and that it was not really nailed to the cross. It has been already observed, that this impiety entirely destroyed the doctrine of the Atonement."—p. 154.

Nay, his anxiety on this point leads him to a third mention of it, as if he thought that theology must be recognized as practical, before it had any claims on the deference of the age.

"He (Basilides) therefore had recourse to the extraordinary notion that Simon of Cyrene was substituted for Jesus; which may remind the reader of what has been already observed, that Gnosticism entirely destroyed the doctrine of the Atonement: that Jesus Christ suffered death for the sins of the world, did not, and could not, form any part of the religious tenets of Basilides. We are not, therefore, to be surprised that the heads of the Church took such pains to expose the errors of a system which, though it appears at first unworthy of a serious notice, was fatally subversive of the very foundations of our faith."—p. 201, 202. {230}

Were it not that this volume is intended for general circulation under the joint authority of Dr. Burton's respected name and of the Literature Committee, we should not dwell on a point like this. But, considering this very serious circumstance, we think it right to call attention to one or two other passages of a similar complexion, that is, containing expressions, meaning nothing in the work itself, but which the divinity of the day will at once single out, appropriate, and triumph in.

In the first of the passages above quoted, the author speaks of admittance "into the Christian covenant by baptism," "as a token that they were cleansed from their sins by faith in the death of Christ." Now if we wished to be critical, we should object first of all to the phrase, "admittance into the Christian covenant," not for its own sake, (for it is in itself quite unobjectionable,) but as being a substitute for one which is much more comprehensive, "admittance into the Christian Church." This also is an accommodation in the writer to the temper of the day, which is much more willing to suppose that in baptism we enter into certain relations with Almighty God, than that we join a certain society. Of course baptism introduces us into a new state, but it does more than this, and we may be quite sure that where there is unwillingness to admit the received language of divinity, this is not an accident, a matter of taste, feeling, or habit, but rises from some lurking indisposition towards the thing which that language expresses. We have then some light cast upon the declension of this day's divinity from the standard of the Reformation, from the following .observable fact, that in the baptismal service, while the expression of "admittance into the covenant" is not once found,—there occur on the other hand those diversified phrases of "received into Christ's holy Church;" "received into the ark of Christ's Church;" "remain in the number of thy faithful and elect children;" "we receive this child into the congregation of Christ's flock;" "grafted into the body of Christ's Church;" "incorporate him into Thy holy Church." It is as clear as words can make it, that our Service contemplates the Church, whatever is meant thereby, (for that is quite a distinct question,) as a definite instrument in God's hands, through which baptized persons receive the promised blessings. It compares it to the ark of Noah, by which we escape "the waves of this troublesome world," and in which we are to be found at the last day, if we are to be "inheritors of God's everlasting kingdom." Substitute covenant for Church, as the privilege into which baptism admits us, and an entire doctrine is dropped out of the Christian scheme.

But, after all, it is the word "token," in the extract referred to, {231} which makes it necessary to dwell upon it. The author says that admittance by baptism is a token that they were cleansed from their sins by faith in the death of Christ. Why not a means? Yet this defective expression is used of the sacraments more than once. For instance,—

"They immediately established the custom of meeting in each others' houses, to join in prayer to God, and to receive the bread and wine, in token of their belief in the death and resurrection of Christ ... Scarcely a day passed in which the converts did not give this solemn and public attestation of their resting all their hopes in the death of their Redeemer."—p. 31.

"Whether the dying penitent would have his pardon sealed in heaven or no, was not for man to decide; but it was not for man to prohibit him from testifying his faith by receiving the symbols of Christ's body and blood."—p. 351.

In a sentence which soon follows, there is indeed an advance towards the higher truth; but not a decisive one. The author speaks of "this solemn rite being considered the privilege, as it was the blessing and comfort, of sincere believers only." Once more,—

"If a man did not hold the articles of faith which were taught by the Church, he could not receive the bread and wine which were taken as a proof of his holding this faith."—p. 425.

Surely they were taken as a "blessing and comfort," in the author's own words, or rather as a special channel of heavenly grace, on condition of his faith. Considering what is going on at present in the Christian Knowledge Society on the subject of baptism, we think its Literature Committee should reflect that these passages on the sacraments may be taken in an exclusive sense which the author did not contemplate, and would be the first to disown.

And now having given our readers some insight into Dr. Burton's work, we leave it for the study of those, an increasing number we trust, who think that an acquaintance with the early Church may tend to the edification of their own.

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1. Vide British Critic for 1825.
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2. Like him [Justin] he [Irenĉus] is silent, or nearly so, on the election of grace, which from the instructors of his early age he must often have heard, and like him, he defends the Arminian notion of free will and by similar arguments. His philosophy seems to have had its usual influence on the mind, in darkening some truths of Scripture, and in mixing the doctrine of Christ with human inventions."—Milner, vol. i.
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3. Vide Mr. Osburn's Primitive Errors, pp. 25, 191, 256-290.
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Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
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