History, Theology of

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The notion of a theology of history, or the Weltanschauung based on the providential action of God in human affairs, is here discussed in terms of its concept, its relation to Holy Scripture, and its historical developments.


The concept of a theology of history as distinct from a philosophy of history raises problems that affect our understanding of the field. Loose, ambivalent use of both terms is not uncommon. Several reasons may account for the confusion: (1) there is some question about the claims of each field to be properly a science; (2) both are phases of the larger problem that concerns the relationship of philosophy and theology, reason and faith; and (3) the historical development of comprehensive theories of history has occasioned fluctuations and ambiguities, such as the still prevalent tendency to include plainly theological interpretations under the loose heading of philosophies of history. On the other hand, defensible opinions hold that the key concepts of modern philosophies of history are secularized forms of older, theological concepts.

A nice, theoretical delimitation of the two fields will not exorcise concrete, historic ambiguities that are disregarded because of a passionate absorption in the central problem of history and its ultimate meaning. The driving concern, however unspoken and unacknowledged, seems to be deeply religious, and even theological.

With this preamble it may be said that the theology of history, as conceived today, is that branch of theology that studies both the uniqueness and the universality of God's providential action in history, and the various phases of the divine plan. More precisely, it inquires into the divine action on behalf of, and in relation to, the human race and attempts to interpret this action from the human point of view. As salvation history, the theology of history embraces the whole of time and tries to clarify its ultimate meaning. It draws into its domain the entire sweep of history in order to discover how it comports with the intentions of God as discoverable in revelation. Theology of history necessarily regards the whole of reality, hence also the progress of cultures, but it is not concerned with the progress of cultures as such. True to its own inner principle it aims to focus the action of God in history as revealed to man and the ongoing understanding and free response of mankind to the divine action.

It is customary to contrast cyclical theories of history as typical of pagan antiquity with the linear concept of history characteristic of OT Judaism and Christianitya concept involving a beginning in creation, an end divinely appointed, and a precarious progression of events in between through the exercise of human freedom and the governance of Divine Providence.

It is unfair and inaccurate to label all ancient cyclical theories as pessimistic and despairing subjections of man to blind fate. The ancient cyclicisms also existed in a hopeful, if vague, religious matrix. The idea of an everlasting recurrence, probably taking a leaf from nature, implied possibilities of renewal, rebirth, redemption in some sense, and salvation from frustration and meaninglessness. Pessimism and despair come later with a culture that had lost the primitive religious conception and had come to be haunted by the horror of blind determinism and meaningless repetition. To this weary culture the linear conception of Christian thought signified a new sense of purpose and meaning.

The people of Israel experienced their historical situation as God's action guiding them to the promised goal of salvation and the Messianic kingdom. Christian doctrine also is grounded in historical fact: the Incarnation, the death, and Resurrection of Christ (1 Cor 15.14). But the Christian message, going beyond the historical distinction of Jews and Greeks, extends to all mankind. Christian theology, moreover, has set itself from the beginning to think out the historical implications of the faith. The procedure has nothing in common with that of the Enlightenment philosophers who rejected revelation, secularized theological concepts, and reduced Christian teaching to a hard core of rationally accepted truths.


Holy Scripture contains not only the fact of God's action in history but also first reflections on its meaning. In the OT God is the lord of history. He holds the nations in His hand; He chose Israel out of them to be His people and the instrument of His purposes (providence). He intervened to free them from Egypt. He used the Gentiles to discipline His faithless people, but the election of Israel (covenant) was part of a comprehensive plan for all men and the entire world. The beginning of this divine action was creation itself, a consideration that draws all of nature into the historical perspective. The Prophets speak of God's great deeds of the past in order to awaken confidence in still greater things to come at the end of ages (Is 43.1819; see eschatology). In contrast to pagan religions, which reduced time to a lingering, fading shadow of a vanished golden age, the OT endows time with positive meaning and grounds a strong, forward-looking expectation. The apocalyptic writings (Ezekiel; Zechariah, ch. 914; Joel, ch. 34; Daniel) expand this eschatology into a veritable theology of history moving surely to the ultimate triumph of God over the powers of evil.

The NT emphasizes the same themes: God as lord of history, providence, freedom of divine action, and eschatology, but it adds a new elementthe end of the ages and their fulfillment have come with the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. God's action is essentially completed in Christ, all that the Prophets had proclaimed: Judgment, Resurrection, the kingdom, the eternal covenant, the new creation. In Christ the plan of God is substantially fulfilled, God is fully glorified, and human nature has become fully participant in the divine riches. What in essence has been accomplished must now be extended to all mankind before the great day of Christ's second coming (parousia) and the final judgment. This "time-in-between" is a period of divine action that is now mainly sacramental and draws the events of profane history into its saving purpose.

This destiny of the Church seems to be the dominant theme of the Revelation of St. John and the recurrent subject of the Pauline Epistles. Romans, ch. 11 on the fate of Israel after Christ and 2 Peter on the deferment of the Parousia contribute important elements. The Parousia, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment will be part of this history, constituting its final phase, which according to St. Paul, will be but the cosmic unfolding of Christ's Resurrection and the full revelation of what has already been substantially accomplished in Christ and the Church.

Some theologians see a typological similarity between various phases of the history of salvation and in this typology a revelation of the constant aspects of God's action. In these constant aspects they see certain universal laws of divine action, which in their view constitute the object of a theology of history as science in the strict sense of the word (typology).


It will be convenient to discuss the theology of history during the several periods of Christian history.

Early Fathers and Apologists. In controversy with Jewish religionists, pagans, and Gnostics the early Fathers and apologists utilized the theology of history to establish continuity of God's action between the OT and NT Christianity. justin martyr outlined a theology of history. irenaeus considered history as a cosmic week of seven millenniums during which mankind, like a child, gradually grows up to understand the glory of God. Christ came, not to restore a primordial state of perfection, but to complete what was germinally present from the beginning. In the doctrine of his disciple hippolytus and others this scheme implied chiliasm, the reign of Christ for 1000 years in the 7th millennium (see millenarianism). clement of alexandria in his broad doctrine of the logos spoke of the preparation of both Jews and pagans for the coming of the True Logos, Christ. origen continued the ideas of Irenaeus and Clement, but introduced a compromising cyclicism with his notions of the preexistence of souls and the apocatastasis. eusebius of caesarea injected a political note: monotheism makes for world unity and peace whereas polytheism favors a fragmentation into nations, and consequently warfare.

St. Augustine and the Middle Ages. In the City of God augustine developed a theology of history that dominated Western thinking on the subject until the 18th century. Taken as one vast effort of intellect and faith, this was theology of history in the grand style and on a grand scale. Nowhere else is there a comparable combination of sustained sublimity of theological vision with an almost harshly realistic appraisal of human events. As a theology of history Augustine's work has never been superseded; it still calls for thorough theological analysis and development.

The first ten books wrestle with a historical problemthe fall of Rome in 410 that shook the civilized world and brought public outcries against the Christians. Both the attack on the Church and Augustine's apologetic involve a total theology of historyChristian vs. pagan. Augustine's exposition proceeds along practical rather than abstract theological lines of argumentation. In books 11 to 22 the implicit theology becomes explicit. His simple, vast conception is of the "Two Loves" building two cities or commonwealths, both existing side by side as invisible protagonists from beginning to end of history (and beyond), both locked in conflict and competition throughout the ages and providing the dynamic of historical development until the issue shall be decided between them in the grand denouement of the Parousia, the Last Judgment, and the triumph of Christ and the Church. This basic conceptual framework supports the exposition and provides the theme from start to finish. Not surprisingly, as in the City of God, the problem of evil in the world serves as one of the mainsprings of theological speculation on history; it was one of the chief issues in Augustine's own intellectual evolution and conversion. It stimulated many historians to discuss Divine Providence and the role of man's free will in the dynamics of history (see free will and providence). It presented the recurrent temptation, wisely resisted by Augustine but perhaps too easily indulged by Eusebius and others, to discover signs of providential favor in current political events and structures or to embody the City of God in a definite political reality such as the holy roman empire. None of this is in the work of Augustine; there is no identification of the Messianic kingdom with any earthly kingdom or any earthly culture. The City of God, an invisible spiritual polity, now grows through this new era of history, but will not stand fully revealed until the end of time. The earthly kingdom is essentially ambivalent: in justice, peace, and prosperity it will serve the City of God when it bows to the rule of Christ; but it may also be an instrument of evil to oppose that reign. On this issue Augustine allowed himself no facile optimism, nor did the evidence of political history as he knew it, or as it developed for the next 1,000 years, encourage such illusion. Soberly comprehensive, large and free of all presumptuous attempts to read the mind of Providence in political events, Augustine's theology of history does not seek assurance of divine approval from the events of history. The same reserve governs his treatment of the Chiliast controversy and similar attempts to establish a prophetic chronology of the last days. History moves on steadily toward its God-appointed goal. Worldly events and transcendent goal are distinct but related in the striving of the faithful toward the supreme objective. The attitude and position of the true Christian is always precarious, always a courageously trustful commitment to the sublimely inscrutable will of Providence in faith, hope, and love.

Augustine's work had no fully authentic continuators. His pupil orosius, who wrote at his behest in 418 (Seven Books of History against the Pagans ), maintained the providential principle and the apologetic purpose of Augustine, but for the rest followed the more pedestrian, political line of Eusebius. He stated that the Pax Romana at the birth of Christ was a special providence and that political events developed to favor Christianity, which in turn promoted human culture. otto of freising in The Two Cities: A Chronicle of Universal History to the Year 1146 (1157) identified the Church with the City of God and affirmed that Christianity always moves westward. This Eusebian tendency to turn history into a theodicy seems to have continued as a subtle ingredient of medieval consciousness together with its large acceptance of Augustine's theology of history (see historiography, ecclesiastical). joachim of fiore introduced an apocalyptic theology of history that announced the coming age of the Holy Spirit, superseding the Petrine Church and inaugurating a spiritual interpretation of the Scripture and the "Eternal Gospel" (Rv 14.6)a doctrine that thomas aquinas gently refuted (ST 1a2ae, 106.4) but which reverberated through the politics, civil and ecclesiastical, of the next century and possibly echoes in all the later utopias of history.

Early Modern Period. J. B. bossuet's Discourse on Universal History centered in the theological concept of God's providence, which he sought to justify by detailed reference to the facts of history. He assigned a special place to the French monarchy as heir to the Holy Roman Empire, to serve the ultimate triumph of the Church. His theology of history was more in the spirit of Eusebius than of Augustine, and in attempting to prove too much apologetically, he laid himself open to later refutations.

Giambattista vico in his La scienza nuova represented the critical transition point between Bossuet and Voltaire. Abstracting from divine revelation (which Vico faithfully accepted), he was the first to point the way to a philosophy of history by adopting the philosophical principle of an eternal law of providential development to be examined empirically. His work may well be called a rational theology of divine providence. Adapting the Cartesian approach to the historical and social sciences, Vico equated the verum and the factum, because history is the creation of man who both creates and describes the fact. Through secondary causes providence operates to establish forms of order beyond human discernment or intent. Vico's work, remarkable as it was, had no influence until a century later. C. de montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws was probably the first influential attempt at a philosophy of history.

The period from the 18th century enlightenment to the 20th century is difficult to analyze in terms of a theology of history. The Enlightenment rejected revelation, but the old theological concepts remained in secularized form. Reason, for example, took the place of Providence, but was given the same governing function in history, now as a kind of natural law. The eschatological tension was transmuted into the idea of progress, and later, into evolution. Eternal reward became "posterity" and fame; the Parousia was reduced to some distant utopian triumph on earth. voltaire's Essay on the Manners and Mind of Nations signaled the radical shift to an antireligious interpretation of history. The work was conceived as a continuation of Bossuet's but became an attack on the traditional theology of history. Voltaire objected that Bossuet's universal history was not universal and that providence cannot be demonstrated from the empirical course of history. Voltaire's critique offered no constructive solution to the problem of historical meaning, but set the tone for the rest of the century. This development of a philosophy of history (or secularized and disguised theology) through the period of kant to the grandiose construction of hegel, through comte's positivism and the era of German historicism down to a history-conscious existentialism goes beyond the scope of the theology of history.

While philosophers went their own way, sweeping transformations occurred in the theology of history. Protestant theology from the beginning seemed intensely conscious of history. At first, this occurred possibly because of the tension between luther's and calvin's views. The former saw this world as the city of wicked man; the latter gave it importance only as the place where the Christian has a mission to help build the kingdom of God. Then in the Enlightenment one tradition emphasized God's transcendence; the other became increasingly antisupernatural and moved with the philosophic currents of empiricism, kantianism, historicism, positivism, evolutionism, existentialism. This liberal Protestantism prevailed through the 19th century up to World War I. Catholic theology, facing gallicanism, jansenism, febronianism, and josephinism, seems to have stressed the juridical concept of the Church until J. mÖhler, followed by C. passaglia, K. schrader, M. scheeben, J.B. franzelin, and K. Adam, revived the truth of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.

In view of these developments the theology of history generated two tendencies or preferred emphases: the eschatological and the incarnationalboth orientations rooted in doctrines that are integral to the gospel and mutually complementary. The incarnational trend stresses the Christian's engagement in this world; the eschatological his disengagement. The former concentrates on the person of Christ and the Church, His Mystical Body, and the importance of man's work here and now to build up the Body of Christ, pointing up the value of God's creation and of human culture. The latter looking rather to the final outcome, the Judgment and Parousia, tends to discount the value of the present, the "time-in-between," as essentially transitory, and to be less than sympathetic to the value of human culture and man's work in the world. On the whole it is probably true that most Protestant theologians of history have been somewhat partial to the eschatological, while most Catholic theologians have favored the incarnational approach. Nevertheless, the distinction need not be overstressed, since both doctrinesthe Incarnation and the Second Comingare recognized as integral to Christianity.

Recent Protestant Theologians. Neo-Orthodoxy. In the period after World War I the relevancy of Christian faith began to erode under the impact of the historical consciousness of liberal Protestantism, in which the being of man is understood as essentially temporal and self-determinative, autonomous vis-à-vis the past and so oriented creatively towards the future. This precipitated the Neo-Orthodoxy movement in Protestantism, which capitulated to the modern notion of history as entirely secular and of itself devoid of any sacral dimension. God's act above time, however, intersects each moment and event, but in a time-transcending way hidden to the world and available only on the basis of faith in the Christ-event. This initial ahistorical cast, in which faith is rescued from historical criticism by being reduced to existential decision (bultmann), was later compromised by allowing for a hidden sovereignty of God over the world (e.g. in Karl barth's Church Dogmatics ). But still history (and along with it, nature) was relativized to the point that it was no longer itself a bearer of divine purposes, but only an occasion in which God's Word confronts individuals. The inadequacies of this view appear in its ahistorical character, its fideism, and its individualism. Two major attempts to meet this objection have been Oscar Cullmann's doctrine of Heilsgeschichte, a sacred history superimposed upon world history in which the purposes of God are unfolded; and the advocacy by the post-Bultmannians of a revised notion of New Testament history as the existential life-commitment of Jesus undergirding the events recounted.

The Eschatological View. Reaction began with an emphasis upon eschatology, understood now not as the vertical dimension of eternity in every temporal moment (Neo-Orthodoxy), but as a thrust within history itself towards its own consummation and occurring within the present course of history rather than at the end of time. Divine revelation is universal history (Pannenberg), whose unity appears only from its end, anticipated in the destiny of Jesus. Reality is thus structured as time, in which the future is accorded ontological priority and impinges efficaciously upon the present. Thus, the transformation of history occurs not developmentally out of the past but in novel ways out of the future. This is not the telos of Aristotle and Aquinas, in which the end preexists in divine intentionality, because the mode of God's being is also future. Nor is it Hegelianism, since the future lacks all logical determination and remains open, giving rise to the religious response of hope. For Jürgen Moltmann, God's action in history continually contradicts man's own achievements (Theology of Hope, 1967); thus the Church is summoned to the cause of liberation under the Holy Spirit as the divine power of futurity (The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 1977). This emphasis upon eschatology as the decisive element in Christianity is motivated in part by a desire to meet the charges of contemporary atheism, especially in dialogue with Marxists (e.g. Ernst Bloch). Questionable in all this are the ontologizing of history, the conceiving of God in terms of futurity so that he ceases to be a God of the present, an arbitrary identifying of the future with freedom and the past with sin.

Process Thought. A radical alternative is operative in the theological use of Whitehead's ontology of process, represented by C. hartshorne, S. Ogden, J. Cobb, L. Ford, D. D. Williams, N. Pittenger, and a host of younger American, mostly Protestant, theologians. Here, the basic category is becoming, applicable not just to history but to all reality, which ultimately consists of a plurality of "occasions" that are self-creative actualizations of eternal ideas. God himself is dipolar, at once temporal (necessarily interacting with the world in time) and eternal (in the sense that nothing of his being perishes in his becoming). History thus becomes God's supplying of subjective aims to actual occasions, by way of his envisioning of infinite possibilities, luring them to maximum actualization. A Catholic approximation to this, in some respects only, appears in teilhard de chardin's theology within an evolutionary worldview. Serious reservations towards this thought arise because of its dismissal of the events of history in their particularity, which, collapsing into pure becoming, possess no perduring significance. The centrality of Christ and his resurrection are necessarily relativized and lose all claim to uniqueness.

Recent Catholic Thought. Catholic thinking likewise continues to intensify its interest in the theology of history. The preponderant effort centers on the relationship of the Christian to the world; on the Church as the Body of Christ committed to the transformation of all human history and culture, to a positive appreciation of natural and human values, and to a like engagement in human events; and on the extension of the Incarnation by building the Body of Christ and by making of this world an anticipation of the world to come. There is a cautionary attitude toward eschatology, lest man lose a sense of responsibility toward the present economy of salvation. So H. de lubac sees the meaning of history in the Church as the extension of the Incarnation of Christ. The Christian's conscientious involvement in the work of the world he calls the "law of the Incarnation." P. Teilhard de Chardin grasps history in an enlarged evolutionary concept by which all creation moves toward "Christogenesis," i.e., the integration of human personality with Christ as the triumph of cosmogenesis, the Parousia. Rightly understood, there is, then, nothing profane to the Christian's view.

In England C. butler and M. d'arcy deplore a misanthropic unworldliness and call for a joyous, generous transfiguration of human history in Christ. C. dawson focuses this transformative effort on a new recognition of the spirit of vocation and individual responsibility. At Louvain G. Thils' theology of history centers on the concept of the progressive unity between the orders of nature and of grace, and their eventual, eschatological identity in the kingdom of God.

Gradually, theologians have enlarged their view to balance this predominantly incarnational theology of history with eschatological elements from Holy Scripture. A decidedly eschatological position emerges among certain Biblical scholars of the NT. Thus, for example, L. Bouyer, influenced by K. Barth and O. Cullmann, insists that Christianity is essentially eschatological, resting on belief in the end of time, and that human history will end in a catastrophe to be interrupted by the return of Christ, the Universal Judgment, and the Resurrection. The incarnational attitude, in his opinion, tends to forget the mystery of the Cross and could easily become a pagan apotheosis of created things. E. Beaucamp, W. Bulst, H.M. Feret, and to some extent R. Guardini lean to the eschatological pole and envision a theology of history in apocalyptic terms. In the Revelation of St. John, Feret finds three elements of a theology of history: messianism; identification of Christ and truth in history; and the victory of Christ as pledge of the Christian's victory, stirring profound longing for the final consummation of the kingdom and urging action to hasten this consummation. Similarly F. X. Durrwell constructs his theology of history around the Resurrection; in the course of history the Church moves toward the splendor of the eternal Easter. This full accomplishment of the Resurrection in the Parousia is the goal of history. The Church as the Body of Christ in history still exists in a state of incomplete evolution of her resurrection in Christ.

Out of this chorus of many theological tongues, all more or less talking the language of Scripture, there rises a need, ever more strongly felt, to balance the equation if possible, and to unify all legitimate insights fairly into a comprehensive theology of history.

Thus Y. M. J. congar and L. Malevez seek a harmony between one-sided incarnationalism and excessive eschatologism. The problem for Congar turns on a valuation of the "time-in-between." Is it a mere accident or is it a part of a plan? The solution, then, lies in the higher concept: God's will and plan that the Christian be in the world (incarnationalism) but not of it (eschatologism). From this resolution of the tension emerges, for Congar, the concept of the Christian's full vocation. Against an extreme eschatological disdain of the world Malevez urges: "But seek first the kingdom of God" (Mt6.33); against an extreme incarnational valuation of human activity he invokes the cross of Christ. J. C. Murray recognizes the theoretical necessity of both positions and indicates the practical human risks attached to each. The problem and the tension lie in the practical sphere, i.e., in the often dubious capacity of man to live his faith.

In his Theology of History (2d ed. New York 1959), Hans urs von balthasar begins with the uniqueness of Christ as both God and man, and hardly lets the aforesaid problem arise. The special Christian fact, viz, Christ's uniqueness, is so constituted as to be, in all its historical singularity, the concrete norm for the abstract norm itself. In Christ the factual and the normative coincide not only in fact, but necessarily, because the fact is both the manifestation of God and the divine-human pattern of true humanity in God's eyes. "In Jesus Christ, the Logos is himself history the source of history, the point whence the whole of history before and after Christ emanates: Its center."

He expands this original and somewhat startling approach by developing the notion of Christ as the mode of time and the norm of history. By freely obeying the Father in heaven, the Son fulfills and includes in His task the whole historical dimension, conferring upon it its ultimate meaning. It was in view of Him that the venture of having any such thing as a world and world history could be undertaken at all. From the point of view of a theology of history, at least, no life or age has its own self-contained meaning. The meaning of the past and of individual destinies is not irrevocably fixed; they can always be newly defined and transformed with the passage of time.

Through the action of the Holy Spirit in a threefold process, Christ becomes the relevant norm for all of history, always involving, in new and surprising ways, the metanoeéte that lies at the heart of the gospel. The whole of history, then, transformed by the hypostatic union, has its ultimate justification and meaning in Christ. But this truth does not mean that created nature has no immanent meaning, no intelligibility of its ownelse there could be no true Incarnation. World history, then, is not coextensive (invisibly) with the history of the kingdom of God. The two forms of Christian existence manifest the tension between natural and supernatural, plant the Cross in the structure of the Church, but do not split the unity of Christian existence. Man's act of corresponding to what God wills for world history as grace is the central core that makes history happen. Since Christ all history is basically sacred, because of the Church's presence and testimony within an all-inclusive world history. The external battle of history between the Church and the powers of evil is only the outward echo of a more essential battle fought within the womb of the Church. The historical battle is not between Jerusalem and Babylon but a deeper, more hard-fought, more crucial struggle against the Babylon within us.

Similarly, K. rahner's ideas on a theology of history exist only in brief sketches, or as a set of broad directives and profound intimations, and as a series of specialized relevant investigations. Even so, one senses everywhere the rich suggestiveness and the strong vitality of genuine theological thought.

Basic is his penetrating analysis of the relationship of nature and grace and his concept of a supernatural existential in man as consequence of his God-given, supernatural destiny. This "existential" is more than a negatively conceived obediential potency; rather it is a positive supernatural orientation of man's being to God, an unexacted supernatural ordination to the Trinity. Rahner conceives of revelation as a saving happening and not merely the communication of certain propositions. Revelation reaches its climax and end in Jesus Christ. The beginning and the end of history are revealed data. The entire course of history obeys the plan of God, which becomes manifest only in the progressive events of history. God enters the world in Christ and reveals Himself to man, but only the man who willingly hears the Eternal Word in faith can form a concept of salvation history distinct from profane history. Revelation and covenant are important concepts for a theology of history, which can in turn support a theological history of the Church and a genuine pastoral theology.

The unfolding divine plan of history does not destroy human freedom, is not some rigid, predetermined unchanging pattern, even though it sets a goal for man that is infallibly pursued and attained. In history man receives power to respond freely to God's Word, and God's further word freely adapts itself to this free response of man. In this revelation and response history proceeds.

Nevertheless, as Rahner suggests, many questions remain uninvestigated or even unrecognizede.g., the theological meaning of a theology of history, heresies as opinions and as churches in the light of the theology of history, the temporal mode of created being, a theology of time, the purposive unity of human history, the theology of human history before Christ, tradition as history and as the development of revelation, the sanctification of the whole sphere of the profane through the Church, and others. We are, indeed, poor in the theology of history. This complex, subtle, and crucial study touches every part of theologyand history. Many tentatives abound, and bold initiatives, and there is much that is merely personal intuition and construction, requiring a deep and solid foundationing, and many scattered valid insights. But with all of this one detects currents of genuine theological vitality and a growing sense of the theological and historical urgency of these problems.

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w. j. hill]

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History, Theology of