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Revelation, Tradition, and Epistemological Flux — A Response to Peter Leithart’s “Who’s got the gateway drug?”

Link to Jason Stellman’s Farewell posting

In a stunning turn of events, Jason Stellman resigned from the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and is expected to convert to Roman Catholicism.  Many know Mr. Stellman from his leading role in bringing charges against Pastor Peter Leithart before the Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the PCA .  Soon after the news broke, Leithart wrote a blog posting: “Who’s got the gateway drug?” The term “gateway drug” is a reference to criticism that Leithart’s high church Calvinism has predisposed people to convert to Catholicism.  Leithart counters that it was “some of the theological assumptions and ecclesial instincts of Protestant Confessionalists provide a smooth on-ramp to Catholicism or an off-ramp from Protestantism.”


Pastor Peter Leithart


As I read through Pastor Leithart’s apologia I found myself disturbed by certain philosophical assumptions in Leithart’s apologia.  At times I wondered if there was not a postmodern fluidity in Leithart’s theological method that is at odds with historic Christianity.  What I intend in this blog posting is describe the contours of Pastor Leithart’s epistemological framework, and then describe the Orthodox approach to the Christian Faith.


The Contours of Peter Leithart’s Epistemology

The following statements are taken from Pastor Leithart’s “Who’s got the gateway drug?” posted 4 June 2012.

1. Leithart assumes that the Christian faith itself evolves (improves) over time.

The golden age is not lost in the unrecoverable past but ahead of us in an eschatological future.

2. Leithart assigns priority to the future over the past.  He rejects the priority of Tradition over contemporary theologizing:

…what I have critiqued elsewhere as “tragic metaphysics,” the notion that the original and old is necessarily preferable to the derived and the new.

Still, essential as the past is, for Protestants the past ought never become an ultimate standard.

3. Theology for Leithart is fluid and negotiable.  Even the classic Christological and Trinitarian dogmas can undergo further revision.

Even the fixed points can be freshly formulated (cf. recent developments in Trinitarian theology and in Pauline studies).  Beyond those few fixed points, much remains up in the air (for Catholics and Orthodox too), and will for centuries to come, as Christians continue to pore over the Scriptures and seek unity of mind concerning what they teach.

Its Trinitarian theology and eschatology give Christian faith an open-endedness that can be unsettling.

4. Leithart vigorously affirms sola scriptura, albeit in a manner that may surprise some.

Scripture remains fixed and immovable, the test and touchstone always of everything. Our understanding doesn’t stay fixed. Protestants should be perfectly comfortable with that.

No tradition can keep God from acting in new ways and saying new things in His world; God is Word, and therefore His voice is not simply identified with the voice of the church or the voice of the past.

Gateway to Liberal Theology?

As I read Pastor Leithart’s blog posting memories of my time in the United Church of Christ (UCC) come back to me.  I once took part in a UCC forum where the Evangelicals and the Liberals presented their viewpoints.  We closed the meeting singing the hymn: “We limit not the truth of God.”  At the end of each stanza was the refrain:

The Lord hath yet more light and truth

  To break forth from His Word.

There seems to some overlap in hymn and Pastor Leithart’s blog posting.  While the United Church of Christ seems worlds removed from the PCA, it is important to keep in mind that this denomination has historic roots in New England Puritanism.  Before Leithart and his supporters voice their objections, I invite them to compare his statements against the UCC’s new slogan: “God is still speaking to us” and the Comma logo.


The United Church of Christ’s official site explains the meaning of the Comma logo:

The comma was inspired by the Gracie Allen quote, Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

For the UCC the Comma is a new way to proclaim Our Faith is 2,000 years old, our thinking is not.”

The UCC does not overtly repudiate Scripture.  What it has done is to combine its reading of Scripture with the experience and concerns of contemporary culture.  Absent in both Leithart and the UCC is any notion of an authoritative and binding magisterium.  It seems that the only binding authority is that of one’s conscience and Scripture.

The Comma invites us to believe that God speaks through other people, nature, music, art, a theorem, the Bible, and in so many other ways.

The Comma pin reminds us of the unusual religious freedom and responsibility to engage the Bible with our own unique experiences, questions, and ideas.

Like Leithart, the UCC does not repudiate the past but seeks to integrate the best from the past with the best of the present.  It is open to change and adaptation.

The Comma reminds us to balance our rich religious past with openness to the new ideas, new people, and new possibilities of the future.

I found the similarities in the philosophical assumptions between Pastor Leithart’s “Gateway Drug” posting and the UCC’s God is still speaking slogan unsettling and a little unnerving.  I am not saying that Leithart’s theological views are liberal.  Pastor Leithart and his colleagues in the Presbyterian Church in America and the Confederation of Reformed and Evangelical Churches have a history of anathematizing theological liberalism.  It is highly unlikely that Pastor Leithart and his contemporaries will ever embrace theological liberalism.

Perhaps most of his students/disciples won’t either.  My concern is more with his theological method.  What will Pastor Leithart’s grandchildren do with his theological methods?  What distinctives will be up for grabs with them?  What new progressive innovations will they discover?  With what kind of church doctrine and liturgy will his grandchildren (natural and spiritual) grow up in?  I raise these questions because at one time the theology of the United Church of Christ wasn’t all that different from Evangelicals, but over time there took place a drift towards more radical positions.

Leithart versus the Confessionalists 

As a good Calvinist Pastor Leithart affirms Scripture as the absolute norm for faith and practice.  But he relativizes secondary authorities like the Westminster Confession.  Relegating creeds to a secondary status is nothing new to Reformed Christianity, but the novelty lies with the extent to which Leithart is willing to go.  While upholding the Westminster Confession’s authority for his denomination, Leithart views it as a human document, historically conditioned, that falls far short of the absolute authority of Scripture.

Confessionalists, after all, place a great deal of emphasis on the tradition of Reformed theology, embodied especially in Reformed confessions.  Throughout the debates of the past few years, I have presented mainly biblical arguments for my positions, and kept historical concerns subordinate.  My opponents have typically been much more interested in testing my views by the Westminster Confession.  The touchstone of their theology is a piece of the Reformed tradition as much as, and in some cases more than, Scripture. Confessionalists claim that the Confession provides standard exegesis of Scripture, to which Reformed theologians have to submit.  Confessional Reformed theology thus has a natural affinity for Rome that biblicists like me don’t share.

Leithart’s disagreement with the Confessionalists is rooted not so much in doctrine as in epistemology.  The Confessionalist theological method rests on the assumption that the meaning of Scripture is clear and obvious and that confessional statements like the Westminster Confession rests on the clear and obvious meaning of Scripture.  This is based on the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, one of the corollaries to sola scriptura.  The Confessionalist epistemology assumes a close correlation or congruence between the meaning of Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture.  This particular approach to Christian truth leads to the belief that confessional statements like the Westminster Confession are objectively true in their reading of Scripture and universally valid; not historically conditioned and contingent as some would have it.  It also assumes certain stability to the Christological and Trinitarian dogmas.  Thus, the Confessionalist epistemology gives rise to stability and certitude to the way they do theology and organize church life.  Leithart chafes at this epistemology preferring one that is more open ended and critically informed.

Leithart’s criticism of the Confessionalists seems to be informed by postmodern approach to truth which rejects the foundationalist notion of truth.  The foundationalist understanding of truth has come under strong criticism, especially by the postmodernists who insist that our understanding of truth is historically conditioned, contingent, and at best incomplete.

For Pastor Leithart, Christian theology (Christian Truth) exists in a sort of neo-Hegelian epistemology of flux.  Pastor Leithart seems to hold his Christian heritage at arm’s length, distance as theorems and hypotheses to be tested continuously in light of our study of Scripture.  Theology for Leithart is more a journey than a destination.  Thus, a confessional statement like the Westminster Confession is not so much a “binding address” for the faith community, but a signpost on the road we travel.  Truth is not something clearly delivered once and for all time via the Holy Spirit to the Church.  In Leithart’s understanding Truth is something that is approximated at best, and always unreached “out there” in the future.  I want to make clear that for Leithart Truth is not denied; it is just embedded in epistemological flux.  We may not have the Truth but we can nibble at it from a distance.  Pastor Leithart insists that Protestants should be comfortable with this understanding of Truth.

What Scripture Teaches on Epistemology

Orthodoxy rejects the notion of an open-ended and evolutionary understanding of the Christian Faith because this not is what Scripture teaches.  Scripture warns against private interpretation.  We read in II Peter 1:20: “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.”  In the early Church, it was the bishops, the Apostles’ disciples, who were given the responsibility and the authority to teach the Faith (II Timothy 4:1-5).  Is it not significant that the Apostles did not create for their well trained and proven disciples, soon to be bishops (II Timothy 2:2) a compilation of essential doctrines as well as a canon of New Testament Scriptures?  Is it also not significant that the Apostles devoted much of the early years of ministry in the proclamation of the Gospel and oral instruction in the Christian Faith, rather than compiling systematic treatises on the Apostolic teachings?  Instead the Apostles exhorted their spiritual children to hold fast to the Apostolic teachings and trusted the Holy Spirit to guide future generations into all truth.

Eastern Orthodoxy emphasizes a distinct foundation for Apostolic Tradition.  In Jude 3 we read about “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”  In this short verse we learn four important lessons: (1) the definite article in “the faith” indicate that Jude is thinking about a specific body of teaching, (2) “once for all” (hapax) points to a unique onetime event like Christ’s atoning death on the Cross (cf. Hebrews 9:28), (3) “once for all” points to a unique event not a series of events, and (4) “entrusted” (paradidomi) refers to a traditioning process in which the Faith is handed on from one person to another.  Doctrinal stability is seen in II Thessalonians 2:15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistles.” (NKJV)  “Stand fast” implies fixity and stability, as opposed to the fluid progression implied in Leithart’s epistemology.

From the standpoint of the sociology of knowledge, the Orthodox and Reformed tradition have quite different approaches to doing theology.  Orthodoxy functions as a “community of memory” when it seeks hold on to the Apostolic tradition without change.  Orthodoxy also follows the principle of conciliarity, that is, theological differences are resolved through the collective action of the bishops, the designated successors to the Apostles.  For the most part, Protestant theology seems to deny or overlook the church as a “community of memory” preferring to stress the individual reading of Scripture and the willingness of the brave individual to challenge church authority on the basis of sola scriptura.  Protestant epistemology is based on a contestable and negotiable understanding of truth.  In light of the fact that there is no received Tradition, Protestants must earnestly read Scripture, collect theological data from Scripture, then weigh the merits of competing theological positions in light of Scripture.  This explains why biblical studies and exegesis are given such prominence among Protestants.  Lacking the principle of conciliarity, Protestantism has suffered the misfortune of theological differences becoming entrenched in a plethora denominations and aberrant sects.

The Church the Pillar of Truth

But if the Church is indeed the pillar and ground of Truth (I Timothy 3:15), and if Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all Truth holds true then there is no reason to believe that Truth is in an evolutionary flux.  Christian Truth is not a set of intellectual constructs; Christian Truth is embodied in the Church which was founded on the authority of Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit.  This capital “T” Tradition is not so much a set of beliefs but rather the life of Church indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul in Ephesians described the Church in static terms, e.g., being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets and whose cornerstone is Jesus Christ, and in dynamic terms, e.g., growing into a temple (Ephesians 3:20-22).

Protestant theology has long relied upon an incredible historical trope: (1) Apostolic Beginning, (2) Apostasy (soon after the apostles died), (3) Spiritual Darkness for over a thousand years, (4) Reformation and the Return of the Light.  This particular trope has even been described by a Protestant writer as a de facto denial of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit Blinks On and Blinks Off at different times in church history.  This view of church history fosters a survivalist mentality that views the outside world as hostile and dangerous.

In the Orthodox epistemology the meaning of Scripture and the exegesis of Scripture are inseparable in the context of Holy Tradition.  Where Leithart sees core doctrines like Trinity and Christology as contingent on the ongoing study and interpretation of Scripture, Orthodoxy believes that through the Ecumenical Councils the exegetical debates underlying the Christological and Trinitarian controversies were definitively and authoritatively settled.

This is based on the belief that Christ’s promise of Pentecost is real -– that the Ecumenical Councils were indeed truly guided by the Holy Spirit and that the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils are infallible and binding upon all Christians.  This belief in Pentecost as an ongoing reality gives Orthodox epistemology a mystical dimension that is very different from the rationalism so characteristic of Western theology.  In other words the Nicene Creed and the Ecumenical Councils function more as a “binding address” for all Christians, not as theological resources to be used as one sees fit.  Leithart’s open ended and progressive hermeneutics to Scripture alienates him from the underlying assumptions of the Ecumenical Councils.

Leithart upends this historical trope by using an optimistic evolutionary perspective to church history.  This optimistic view of church history reminds me of Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism.  However, attempts to liken Leithart’s optimistic historical vision to classic Liberalism and the Social Gospel movement, while understandable, are mistaken.  Leithart’s optimistic historiography is rooted in the post-millennial reading of biblical eschatology.  This particular eschatology has roots in the theology of major Reformed theologians like John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper.  This view sees in Scripture the promise of Christ to be with the Church as the nations are disciples along other Scripture passages that point a Christianized world filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea, and the promise that the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church.

Icon – Ignatius of Antioch

If Orthodoxy has a particular historical trope, it would be that of the early martyrs who held to the Apostolic Faith even in the point of dying for Truth.  It recognizes that society can be hostile to the Christian message but Christ has promised that Peter’s confession – the Gospel of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God — would prevail against the gates of Hell and that the Holy Spirit would guide his Church into all truth.  Orthodoxy despite being hidden from the West because of the Great Schism, living under Muslim rule and Soviet persecution amazingly safeguarded (some might even say supernaturally!) the Apostolic Tradition against external pressures like violent persecution and internal threats like innovation and heresy.  Orthodoxy’s ecclesial approach to Christian Truth offers stability and solidity not found in the authoritarianism of the Roman Papacy and Protestantism’s ahistorical sola scriptura.

Epistemological Strategies

There are at least four epistemological stances one can take in the face of Pastor Leithart’s response to the collapse of Jason Stellman’s Protestant theology:

1. The eclectic Reformed catholicism taken by Peter Leithart who affirm the primacy of Scripture while taking an inclusive and eclectic approach to secondary sources, e.g., creeds, vestments, liturgy, critical scholarship.

2. The naive foundationalism of Protestant fundamentalism that ignores the dynamic fluidity of Protestant theology and shies away from critical thinking.  The Confessionalist stance that Stellman once identified with seems to reflect this particular epistemology.

3. The monarchy of the Roman Papacy.  This is for those who seek to find stability in the infallible magisterium of Rome.  In this solution the chaos that arises from the postmodern reading of Scripture is corralled by the infallible magisterium of the Papacy.

4. The Apostolic Tradition safeguarded by Eastern Orthodoxy for the past 2000 years.  This view rests upon the assumption that Christ gave the Holy Spirit to his Church and that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Church has preserved that Tradition against innovation and heresy.

I am not familiar with Mr. Stellman’s reasons for renouncing his Reformed views but I would like to suggest what may have motivated him was: (1) a reaction against the epistemological flux in Leithart’s approach to doing theology (Option 1), and (2) a preference for a more classic epistemology that views truth as accessible and Christian doctrine as possessing a stability that endures over time (Options 3 or 4).

Leithart is under the impression that Jason Stellman is heading to Rome because of a “postmodern recognition of the historical embeddedness and contextuality of all human knowledge.”  This leads me to suspect that exposure to postmodern thought has closed off the path of naive foundationalism that underlies the Confessionalist position (Option 2).  I suspect that Stellman’s preference for epistemological stability is much closer to the historic Christian Faith than Leithart’s more open ended quest version of Christian truth.

Despite their fundamental differences, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism share one important trait that makes them two peas in a pod – a developmental approach to faith and practice.  The development of doctrine in the Christian West stands in sharp contrast with Orthodoxy’s determination to protect the Apostolic Tradition from innovation and heresy.  While the monarchy of the Papacy may offer the promise of doctrinal stability, it should be kept in mind that it has unilaterally introduced doctrinal innovations that the Orthodox find objectionable: the Filioque clause, Papal infallibility, Papal supremacy over all Christianity, purgatory etc.

Like Leithart I find the foundationalist assumptions of the Confessionalists wanting but I have grave reservations about Dr. Leithart’s proposed remedy.  (He holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.)  He may well assert: “What I and my friends offer is the antidote to and not the cause of Roman fever.”  It should be kept in mind that one of the serious side effects of Dr. Leithart’s medicine is epistemological vertigo.  That is enough for many to decline and go elsewhere.  And as mentioned before, we need to take into consideration the possible long term consequences of Leithart’s epistemological stance.

Climate Change for Protestantism?

If Jason Stellman’s crosses the Tiber, it is sure to cause consternation within Reformed circles.  But what should be even more alarming is the fact that Stellman’s defection is part of a larger trend.  Just a few days earlier on 27 May 2012, Joshua Lim, a brand new graduate from Westminster Seminary (Escondido) posted his conversion to Roman Catholicism.  Similar conversions are happening elsewhere.  Converts also include Gordon-Conwell graduates like Scott Hahn and Gerry Matatics.  And then there is the resignation of the president of the Evangelical Theological Society, Francis Beckwith.  All this raises the question: Why are so many of the best and the brightest leaving Protestant Christianity?  It appears that Protestant Christianity is undergoing a “climate change,” i.e., a fundamental shift in the intellectual atmosphere, as Protestant theologians, pastors, and seminarians question the basis for sola fide and sola scriptura.

As Protestantism undergoes an unprecedented climate change, once solid ice shelves have melted away leaving many floundering on what was once solid ground.  Mainline Reformed denominations like the PCUSA and the UCC have already been heavily influenced by secular culture.  Pastor Leithart and his colleagues may be able to hold the line of theological orthodoxy for this generation and the next, but how certain can they be that the generations after that will not succumb to theological liberalism?  Protestants who are seeking a more stable and historic form of Christianity are faced with two choices: the monarchy of Roman Catholicism or the conciliarity of Eastern Orthodoxy.

The foundations beneath the house of Protestantism have other structural problems that we have highlighted elsewhere in this blog.  Like a weakened body losing blood, Protestant Christianity is suffering a slow death by thousand cuts as new interpretations of Scriptures are propagated, church splits occur over doctrinal differences, and new denominations founded all the time.  The promise of Pentecost is understood primarily in terms of personal experience, not within and for the entire Church.  This has resulted in a widespread historical amnesia where Protestant Christians live their lives as if two thousand years of their Christian heritage never happened!  It has also resulted in belief in an invisible “Church” and disbelief in a tangible visible Church.  We invite Protestants to take seriously the Apostle Paul’s descriptiion of the Church as the “pillar and ground of truth” (I Timothy 3:15) and to consider whether that verse might be a fitting description of the Orthodox Church.

 Robert Arakaki


  1. Eric Henderson


    Thanks for your work on this blog. I have found it immensely helpful since discovering it whilst in Afghanistan. This will be my second comment in all that time. As I make it, please remember that my sympathies lie increasingly with the Orthodox Church, frankly, much to the consternation of my wife and the the theological unsettling of my household.

    With that context set, let me ask this question. Could not Pastor Leithart claim that the Holy Spirit will prevent the sort of widespread slipping away that you (correctly I think) posit as the likely outcome of the notion of doctrinal development? To the evidence of your own original denomination’s slipping of the morings and heading off into Theological Liberalism, could he not reply with some justification “Yes, but here we are. And should the same happen to us, the Holy Spirit will raise up yet another group ever closer to the Truth? We see through a glass, and darkly — but the Holy Spirit is active and will not allow His truth to vanish. The process is dynamic but real, even if only visible from God’s perspective.”

    I ask the question because a similar argument has been used on me by those close to me as I (we) struggle with these things. Needless to say (given my question here), my response was less than convincing. 🙂


    • robertar


      Good question. I would say that those who believe that the Holy Spirit won’t allow that to happen to Pastor Leithart’s group are gambling on an unknown and unforeseeable future. On the other hand, I would point to the historical record of the Orthodox Church and that if Orthodoxy has a proven track record of safeguarding Apostolic Tradition, what’s stopping you?

      On a slightly different note, I recently came across an article in Christianity Today which describes the spread of “new apostles” among the charismatic and Pentecostal churches. These folks share a similar optimistic and progressive view. How would your Reformed and Evangelical friends respond to them? That the Holy Spirit is with them but not with the others?

      Much depends on how we understand our relations with the Tradition of the Apostles. Have we lost it and are in the process of recovering it? That is the Protestant understanding of the situation. The Orthodox position is that for over 2000 year Orthodoxy has safeguarded the Tradition of the Apostles and that if one wants be part of the Apostolic Tradition must be in communion with the Orthodox Church. The Apostolic Tradition hasn’t gone away but has remained in Orthodoxy. This means that one must repudiate the branch theory of the church and accept that there is only one visible Church, the Orthodox Church.

      Historical continuity has played a significant part in the apologia I have presented on this blog. In the various blog postings I have sought to show that despite well meaning efforts by high church Calvinists, there still remains a gap between them and the early Church. For example, they don’t believe in a local real presence like the early church fathers, they lack apostolic succession, and they still hold to their iconoclasm despite its being repudiated and condemned by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Reformed Christians who seek to take church history seriously cannot get around these facts. This leaves them with several choices: (1) one is to adopt a relativistic and evolutionary understanding of Christianity, or (2) the other is to accept that there is a fixity and stability to Christian truth and that there exists a historical continuity between the early Apostles and the Orthodox Church today. I used to hold to the first view but over time I came to the conclusion that the second view was more consistent with Scripture and the historical evidence. But accepting the second position was not easy because it meant my former home church and the churches of many of my Evangelical friends cannot be considered churches in the fullest sense of the word. It also meant openly repudiating certain beliefs upon my entry into Orthodoxy. I’m still in touch with many of Evangelical friends and I’m grateful for that. But I have to be honest and say that something has changed on a certain level. I hope this helps you in your struggle with these issues.


  2. Matthew N. Petersen

    I think you may be misreading the first couple of points. I, of course, agree that Dr. Leithart says what you quote him as saying, but I believe he’s quoting Jenson and Rosenstock-Huessy, which puts his statements into a different context (though I agree there is a superficial similarity).

    Rosenstock-Huessy talks about the Cross of reality, our competing duties to listen to the older generation pulling us one way, and our duty to speak to the younger generation trusting the Spirit that our words will produce fruit. These two duties pulling us another, tearing us apart on the Cross of reality, and thereby make us whole. Critically, any forward looking must be simultaneously backwards looking, otherwise we come down from the cross of reality and condemn ourselves. That is, on his view, it is perfectly consistent to criticize the liberals for favoring the future, and forgetting the past, while simultaneously criticize the traditionalists for focusing on the past, and not speaking toward the future. Yes, in some sense the liberals are correct, and yes, in some sense the traditionalists are correct. But the liberals are wrong for only looking forward, and never listening. The traditionalists are wrong for only listening, and never pressing on, never speaking. The liberals are more wrong, however, because they do not fully listen to the past Word, Christ Jesus.

    Very similarly with Jenson. For Jenson, the Spirit is the Eternal Future of God. Drawing on St. Gregory Nazanzius, he criticizes false religions for believing in an spatially infinite god, arguing instead that the Christian God is a temporally eternal God–ever future, and equally ever past and present.

    But what time, measured by the course of the sun, is to us, that Eternity is to the Everlasting, namely, a sort of time-like movement and interval co-extensive with their existence.

    For Jenson, the future is the eternal consubstantial Spirit. But the Spirit is the Spirit who inspires the Church, and who is consubstantial to the Son who has come, and consubstantial to the Father, the origin. So though we are future oriented, we are not thereby oriented away from the past, but toward the past, for the future, the Spirit, is consubstantial with the past, the Father.

    For Jenson, we ought to listen to the past, but we ought to listen to the past because the people who spoke in the past were inspired by the future. Inspired being the critical, and literally precise, word. They spoke with the voice of the Spirit. Therefore they spoke from the coming escatological future.

    Indeed, I think Dr. Leithart’s statement is more Orthodox than you give it credit for.

    The golden age is not lost in the unrecoverable past but ahead of us in an eschatological future.

    Is this not the Orthodox position? Just as we eat breat that belongs to the coming–future–age in the Eucharist, so likewise, we ought to listen to the fathers of the past, not because they are past, but because they speak from the Escatological future.

    • robertar


      I’m hoping that Pastor Peter Leithart will be able to speak for himself. I have to admit it can be hard at times picking up the nuances in another person’s blog. But I appreciate your attempt to shed light on what Pastor Leithart is tyring to convey.

      I think you are over stressing the role of the future. For example the way I read the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,the Eucharist is more about our worshiping the Trinity with the angels and the church triumphant than the convergence of the future and present. I would be interested if you could point to liturgical texts from the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil. With respect to the church fathers they should be heeded because they stand in the line of apostolic succession and because they were charismatically gifted teachers (Ephesians 4:11). That they speak from the Eschatological future sounds nice but is that consistent with the patristic consensus or Scripture? I’m also curious about how you would apply this ‘back to the future’ motif to the thorny problem of the Filioque.


      • Vincent Martini

        Properly speaking, the Liturgy is outside of time (which is why it is not assigned to any of the Hours of the day, specifically) or a-historical. It is truly a participating of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (along with Paradise of Eden and the supper in the Upper Room), but these are not events “in time.” It is inaccurate to speak of them as “past or present,” in my understanding.

    • Matthew N. Petersen

      Here’s a link from Fr. Stephen about the eschatological character of the Church, and the Eucharist. (I believe it features centrally in his critique of the “two story universe.”)



      Here’s Fr. Schmemann

      It is because we have “constituted” the Church, and this means we have followed Christ in His ascension; bcause He has accepted us at His table in His Kingdom; because, in terms of theology, we have entered the Eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space; it is because all this has first happened to us that something will happen to the bread and wine. (For the Life of the World 2.9)

      I don’t think we can divorce holding the tradition of the past from the eschaton. Do the saints of old testify to the tradition handed down? Yes. But what is the tradition if not testimony to the Eschaton which has broken in? And do not the saints of old testify not only to the eschaton of which they have heard, but which they themselves have experienced? What are the Uncreated Energies if not the coming glory which shall be revealed? Thus Palamas quotes St. Symeon metaphrastes:

      The glory which even now enriches the souls of the saints will cover and clothe their naked bodies after the resurrection, and will elevate them to the heavens, clad in the glory of their good deeds and of the Spirit; that glory which the souls of the saints have received now in part, as I have said. Thus, glorified by the divine light, the saints will be always with the Lord. (Triads III.i.10)

      And again:

      Indeed, not only will Christ be eternally thus in the future, but He was such even before he ascended the Mountain. Here John Damascene, who is wise in divine things: “Christ is transfigured, not by putting on some quality He did not possess previously, nor by changing into something He never was before, but by revealing to His disciples what He truly was, in opening their eyes and in giving sight to those who were blind. For while remaining identical to what He had been before, He appeared to the disciples in His splendour, He is indeed the true light, the radiance of glory. (III.i.15)

      Dr. Leithart would of course, not quote Palamas, but you asked is it Orthodox. What is the Eschaton if not God, the Person of the Son who came in Bethlehem, the Person of the Spirit, who came at Pentecost, and the Uncreated Glory, which dwells on the Son and the Spirit, and is given to us to partake of. And why do the saints have authority if not because of the Spirit and His gift of Glory?

      • robertar


        I agree with what Fr. Stephen had to say about the Church and the Eucharist being eschatological. A lot depends on what you or Pastor Leithart mean by “future” and “past” with respect to the Eschaton — the Son sent by the Father into history via the Incarnation and the Spirit promised by Christ and who entered history via Pentecost. When I read Pastor Leithart’s statements I am under the impression that he is thinking that we are not there yet, not with respect to our theological understanding.

        Let me make a conjecture as to where I think Pastor Leithart diverges from the Orthodox understanding. It seems to me that Leithart approaches the past and the future from a “chronos” understanding of history and that Orthodoxy approaches the past and the future from a “kairos” perspective of the kingdom of God. To appropriate science fiction genre, Pastor Leithart’s quest approach is like Star Trek’s Enterprise moving at warp speed towards an unknown but exciting destination; Orthodoxy’s approach is more like the movie Stargate that starred Kurt Russell in which an interstellar teleportation device leads instantly to a completely different world.
        At the Divine Liturgy we are in the presence of the Trinity; we stand at the heavenly altar; we have entered into the Eschaton. For us the Eschaton is not afar off, nor not quite there for it is truly here in the Liturgy. Because Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, when he became Incarnate of the Virgin Mary the Eschaton entered into the flux of human history. When Jesus walked on the shores of Lake Capernaum and taught it was no mere historical event but rather an eschatological event because of the Person who was there. Similarly, when Jesus taught his followers that was an eschatological event. Similarly when Jesus gave them the Great Commission and sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, these were eschatological events, not some half-way not-quite-there dialectic. This is why Jesus told his Apostles: “Most assuredly, I say to you he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” (NKJV) To receive the teaching of someone who is part of the chain of Tradition is to participate in divine revelation grounded in the ongoing realities of the Incarnation and Pentecost. The teaching that Jesus gave his Apostles was part of an eschatological event. On one level we see a Jewish rabbi teaching his students, on another level we perceive a revelatory event as astounding as what happened when Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.

        For Orthodoxy, Apostolic Tradition is a done deal. Theology is not an evolutionary quest in which we appropriate the best of the past, incorporate the best of the present, and move towards a more perfect understanding of Scripture. For Orthodoxy, we have the Apostolic Tradition in its written and unwritten forms. We seek to be faithful to the Tradition that Christ gave his Church to hold until his Second Coming. The decisions of the Councils were not the result of accumulated knowledge leading to new insights and advances in theological insights. The doctrinal development in the Ecumenical Councils were really conservative reactions intended to preserve and defend Apostolic Tradition. I don’t see any indication of the Ecumenical Councils being on a quest for a greater understanding of Scripture and doctrinal development. If there is a quest motif in Orthodoxy, it can be found in doctrine of theosis. As a result of the fall we have fallen far from God and we are seeking healing for our souls. We are like the Prodigal Son who left the Father’s house (sinning against God), coming to his senses and returning home (repentance and confession), and restored to full sonship and feted with the fatted calf (baptism, chrismation, Eucharist).

        For those on the quest for the kingdom of God, the Orthodox Church says: Come and worship with us the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here is the kingdom of God. Here is the messianic banquet. The eschatological future is here in the Eucharist. Through the Liturgy we enter into the “stargate” into the eternal heavenly kingdom. The Liturgy for the Orthodox is not an anticipation of a not-yet but a participation in the eternal kingdom of God. For those who have devoted time and energy studying the biblical text assiduously and striving to incorporate the best of theological scholarship (past and present), the Orthodox Church says come and receive the Tradition of the Apostles, the fullness of the Faith. Join the long chain of Tradition that stretches back to the original Apostles and into the future unchanged until the Second Coming.


        • Canadian

          You said “I don’t see any indication of the Ecumenical Councils being on a quest for a greater understanding of Scripture and doctrinal development.”

          Absolutely. In fact, this is from the historical intoduction to the Nicene Council in Schaff’s NPNF vol 14.

          “The editor, however, ventures to call the attention of the reader to the fact that in this, as in every other of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the question the Fathers considered was not what they supposed Holy Scripture might mean, nor what they, from à priori arguments, thought would be consistent with the mind of God, but something entirely different, to wit, what they had received. They understood their position to be that of witnesses, not that of exegetes. They recognized but one duty resting upon them in this respect—to hand down to other faithful men that good thing the Church had received according to the command of God. The first requirement was not learning, but honesty. The question they were called upon to answer was not, What do I think probable, or even certain, from Holy Scripture? but, What have I been taught, what has been intrusted to me to hand down to others?”


        • Matthew N. Petersen

          Fair Enough.

        • Nicodemus

          Robert & Matthew,

          While there is much here, I question whether ‘the future’ or the Eucharist & Church being eschatological the real issue of contention. Granted, the Fathers, Schmemann and Leithart disagree on many things, but generally agree here. And though the details doubtlessly vary, even eschatological optimism for the Church in history is not a sharp disagreement. Whatever the differences, they agree the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church.

          At first the debate seems merely methodological. What really shapes and wins the future: a rigorous and disciplined application of Holy Tradition in the Church to all of life; or a demanding application of Leithart et al’s progressive theological developmentalism? Is it the daily order, calendar of Services, Liturgies, fasts, Sacraments, prayers, Mary, confession, Icons – the wholeness of Holy Tradition practiced for centuries? Or, is it the latest discovered Chiastic structure in Scripture, or symbolic golden nugget never seen by anyone before (much less the Apostles, or Fathers) or chanting psalms?

          Pastor Leithart and company do not believe the disciplined application of Holy Tradition sufficient for the Church to disciple the nations to Christ. Given Orthodoxy’s history of suffering and persecution, there is no sense amongst progressive informed Protestantism of a cultural potency in Orthodoxy. Any memory of the Orthodox Church conquering the Roman Empire is lost in a blur of historic obfuscations. Yea, some even incredulously imagine the Church that defeated pagan Rome was Protestant! It is altogether foreign to the Western mind that the whole complex and diverse application of received Tradition’s to all of life having a cultural leavening effect. It is a mind trapped in the ideas of technological innovation, political revolution, new action(s). Thus, Leithart and company naturally assume progressive theological innovation most necessary for progress.

          In this light let me offer a few analogies which allow the possible latent potency in Holy Tradition to be glimpsed. First, imagine a seasoned, fifty year old math professor greeting a class of bright college sophomores, prior to leading them into the wonders of differential equations. There is a detailed elaborate, systematic process to learn here, as well as a diverse applications. The professor knows what is before him and his students. And he is skilled in unpacking the process and discipline of discovery for his students as they enjoy progressive ah-ha moments of discovery and understanding. And then there is the application of this mathematical discovery to life.

          Next, imagine a similar seasoned doctor of literature before another group of college sophomores to learn the depths and glories of Shakespeare There is much to learn, nuances to understand. But he is skilled and has done this for years. He knows the process and the various ways for bringing the class to truly grasp and understand the myriad of intricacies of Shakespeare, along with the multiple life applications. (A skilled piano teacher teaching a young prodigy a difficult classic piece of music can also work here.)

          Notice here that neither professor imagines he must tinker and alter the content of his subject. The student is taught to learn the brilliance of Shakespeare, or the amazing arrangement of the notes – not like James Jordan who presumes he can edit the Nicene Creed, or any ancient Liturgy to suit him. No, there is tremendous potential and power latent in the process of learning Shakespeare – as delivered and received. The math professor does not pretend he can change the mathematical process. There are no shortcuts, new notes, or new innovations of content.

          There is, however, a certain freshness of discovery in new minds, and myriad of applications within to new cultural context. But there is no substitute for learning, mastering, imbibing ancient wisdom and processes that do not change with the tides or fickleness of man. What is only partly true for the phenomenal world, is especially true for the spiritual world God has created. Progressive Protestants don’t have the patience or confidence in a Liturgical and Sacramental processes to stick around long enough to learn from them.

          As with any analogy, these are far from perfect and holes can no doubt be poked in them. But the point mustn’t be missed. Leithart and company, unlike the professors, trust neither the process or its content. They are compelled to tweak, delete, and reformulate the content and its practice. Most everything is up for reformulation. Like novice but cocky assistant professors, they do not trust the content and body of received knowledge. Rather, their confidence is in their innovative processes, not Holy Tradition.

          But there is more here than merely practical success of the Church not resting upon carefully delivering and applying Holy Tradition The method is rejected because they first reject any authoritative claim Holy Tradition has upon them, or the praxis of the Church. Notice here, from an Orthodox mindset, the Protestant rejection of Holy Tradition is in some sense a rejection of Pentecost and the promise of Christ in Jn 14:26. Orthodox Tradition is Holy only because it is received and regarded as the work of the Holy Spirit in history. (See Mr. Arakaki’s article The Biblical Basis for Holy Tradition.)

          Leithart and company are Western Protestants. Thus, they lack any seasoned experience in the life of Holy Tradition to trust it with confidence. What they know of Holy Tradition has been learned as quick scanning outsiders with a skeptical predisposition, as well as contrary presuppositions. It is not unlike a gifted thirty year old self taught jazz pianist in New Orleans reluctantly trying to teach himself Bach. Leithart and company have not learned Holy Tradition from mature, seasoned and veteran Fathers, much less have they embraced and lived within this Tradition for decades.

          Here is the grand Western problem. Orthodoxy cannot be skimmed quickly and grasped as many Protestants seem to believe. There needs to a suspension of belief at least long enough to imbibe the mindset and embrace it as a way of life and culture. Then we relearn how to see the cultural fruit of many decades, much less several centuries, of the application of such an embrace of Holy Tradition to new minds and new cultures. Given their cultural and theological presuppositions, and progressive condescension toward others, it is unsurprising that Leithart and his friends grossly misunderstand, underestimate and even denigrate the pedagogical potency of Holy Tradition. Their methods follow their theological presuppositions and assumptions.

          • DCF

            Well put.

  3. Outlaw Presbyterian

    ***At times I wondered if there was not a postmodern fluidity in Leithart’s theological method that is at odds with historic Christianity.***

    He has been postmodern since 2007, at least.

    Per (3) Bruce McCormack has noted the tensions, if not downright difficulties in Patristic Christology (e.g., how Cyril’s Christology threatens divine impassibility as received from Gregory Thaumaturgus; McCormack interestingly quotes Fr Bulgakov on this very point). I have been meaning to outline these on my blog, but I haven’t had the time.

    Or even where Cyril speaks of one will and energy (yikes!). Thunberg tries to rescue him on this point, but he seems to give up halfway through the analysis.

    I mention all of that to qualify the repeated “faith once delivered” claim. yes, that’s true but when you look at Patristic theology it is very messy. Thus, we have to modify the claim that the deposit was the “content,” not the language. that could be true, but it is (1) historically problematic, (2) special-pleading, and (3) sounding a lot like Cardinal Newman.

    Yes, Leithart has huge problems and I agree with most of your criticisms. In some spots, though, particularly his future-orientedness, I do not think he can be so easily dismissed.

    • Jnorm

      I thought we already advocated that what’s important is the meaning behind the words and not necessarily the words themselves.

      When I talk to Coptics, I see that when they say “One Incarnate Nature of the Word after the union”.

      What they mean is “One Incarnate Person, concrete Identity, or subject of the Word after the union”

      They don’t mean “One Incarnate Essence of the Word after the union”

      And so knowing what someone means by what they say is very important. But yes, I thought we already advocated that it’s the meaning behind the words we use and not necessarily the words themselves. For we can use the same words and still have different meanings.

  4. John


    1) Brilliant posting.
    2) Some English and Australian history with a decided Reformed twist . . .

    In 1660 with the Restoration, the English wholeheartedly and with great relief, said “good-bye” to the ghastly Puritan era. This period was followed by some turbulence until the 1688-89 Whig revolution which ushered in the Hanoverians.

    From then until 1833 and the Assize Sermon, Secular Liberalism ruled supreme – as a direct and negative reaction to Reformed extremism. The general sentiment was “If this (Reformed-faith) is ‘enthusiasm’ in religion, then we want nothing of it!”

    Not even the 18thC Evangelicals were able to effectively put the evil-spectre of Puritanism away. Which explains their limited success in the UK.

    In Australia, with its Evangelical chaplains during the “chaplaincy” convict era until the installation of the Anglican Bishop Broughton, it was considered part of the convict “punishment” to have to endure listening to an interminable, “preachy” Evangelical sermon.

    As soon as new Anglican dioceses were carved out of Sydney, they quickly abandoned the persecuting Sydney Evangelicalism and went either mildly secular or High Church.

    Yet they largely did not go the radical Liberal (often Unitarian) route of their English forbears. This was because the convicts were gaoled by Liberals, and harangued by Evangelicals. Therefore, the Liberal route was not as attractive as it was in the Northern Hemisphere. Unitarianism hardly exists in Australia as it does in the “North”.

    In 1660, the strongholds of the Reformed faith were: Switzerland, France, Netherlands, England, Scotland. In 1960, these were the leaders of secularism in Europe outdoing the “Lutheran” areas of Germany and Scandinavia in the unbelief stakes.

    It wold be a fascinating exercise in Church history to trace the real origins of, for example, Unitarianism – I suspect that many of its converts were “grandchildren” of hard-line Reformed / Evangelicals.

    Thus, to echo your concerns for Leithart’s “grandchildren”, on the basis of past history, we can confidently assume that most of them (especially in North America) will be Liberal – in reaction to the nature of the Reformed Faith they encountered in “grandpa”.

    I do have comments in/on other areas of your post, but I will leave it at this for now.


    • Outlaw Presbyterian

      ***In 1660 with the Restoration, the English wholeheartedly and with great relief, said “good-bye” to the ghastly Puritan era.***

      Which resulted in the mass-slaughter of my ancestors, the Scottish Covenanters.

      To posit that Protestantism is the direct cause of today’s unbelief in Europe is to hop, skip, and jump over huge swaths of European Cultural history.

      If we are going to play that card, I can tell a few stories about some Romanian Orthodox I know who actively make it a point to have a passive Orthodox faith (and I am sure this is quite common among many ethnic Orthodox. Evidence for that claim? Don’t worry about it. I’m using the same manner of argumentation I see here).

      • Vincent Martini

        The failure of Europe belongs to its governors, banking, and the spread of Islam, not any particular Christian sect (but they certainly haven’t “helped” much).

    • Joshua Torrey


      I have read a couple things from Unitarianism (or Universal Unitarianism) and you can call them “grandchildren” in that they removed themselves from Reformed churches. However, the push towards their heresy stemmed from a rejection of traditional reformed theology.

      They take much pride in their history. I highly recommend reading their material to better understand that Reformed theology is not perfect but it was the last wall to break with any association to Orthodoxy in American churches. While some subsequent denominations might have regained some modest link to Orthodoxy they always did it at the cost of other links. Unitarianism with its utter rejection tossed out the bath water, the baby and then threw the kitchen sink on top of them all 🙂

      – Joshua

      • John


        I love your closing riposte re Unitarianism:

        “Unitarianism with its utter rejection tossed out the bath water, the baby and then threw the kitchen sink on top of them all .”

        What you say re Reformed and Unitarianism may well be true. I will take your word for it in:

        “However, the push towards their heresy stemmed from a rejection of traditional reformed theology.”

        This is precisely what I was (or at least was intending to be understood as) saying. And was part of a “reaction” to the Reformed strictures.

        But . . .

        It still does not explain the Australian conundrum where much of the same dynamic existed, but where Unitarianism hardly exists.

        While you (or Robert, for that matter – Robert, please can we have your two mites worth) may not have all the ‘down-under’ answers, you might like to at least in part help me unravel this ‘down-under’ conundrum. Where would you suggest that these ‘down-under’ “rejecters” of the Reformed faith went?

        In Australia, the Scott Hahn and Jason Stellman phenomena hardly exists. Why?

        Pax vobiscum.

        • robertar


          I am not familiar with Australia’s social and religious history, and for that reason prefer not to say anything lest I say something that is erroneous. But it is important to understand a country’s history in order to understand how it affects the spiritual dynamic there. What you wrote on June 30th was an eye opener for me. Thank you for educating me and others about Australia’s history.


          • John


            Thanks for this. Can I give you a few more small morsels on Australian religious history. This may further open your eyes.

            For the record, Australia’s “chaplaincy period” went from 1788, Jan 26 (the Arrival of The British) to 1836 (when Broughton was consecrated first Anglican Bishop of Sydney. This is so that you can see the relevant time-period we are talking about.

            During this time the British Colonial Office appointed mostly Evangelical Anglican clergy (with Calvinist leanings) to be “chaplains” for the Penal Colony of Australia (which took the convicts that could not go to America after 1776).

            More than 15% of these “chaplains” quickly became serious agricultural pastoralists, spending more time on their farm than darkening a church door (vaguely equivalent to England’s “fox-hunting” parsons from the Church’s Liberal wing).

            Over half doubled as the colony’s judges with their following weekly “timetable” as follows:

            Friday: listening to the collated evidence assembled on Mon to Thurs that week;

            Saturday: delivering judgment from the bench – often with severe physical consequences;

            Sunday: preaching to them from the pulpit the the ‘naughtiness’ (in the language of the time) of their offense and ‘righteousness’ of their sentence, and then the official “Comminations” of the Church (no Communion for the convicts of course – this ‘luxury’ was reserved for the well-to-do and well-behaved);

            Monday morning: supervising the flogging of the poor unfortunate convicts (indeed many ‘chaplains’ became known as a “flogging-parson”) – which often left the convicts useless for work for the next fortnight;

            Monday Afternoon thru Thursday evening, off on their agricultural enterprise making money. And so the sad cycle went on.

            Thus Anglican Evangelicalism came to be heartily disliked by over 90% of the population.

            The only ones (outside Sydney Evangelical Anglicans) left carrying the Reformed flag in Australia with any degree of seriousness were the Presbyterians, which had an even worse record for sermonising, and the diminution of the Eucharist. And sadly, until relatively recently (the 1970’s and beyond), the Presbyterians in Australia lived inside a Celtic “ghetto” of Scots and Northern Irish.

            While full “establishment” never existed in Australia, as in the UK (where the UK Monarch is simultaneously Head of the Church of England AND the Leading “Layman” of the established Kirk of Scotland), the local Anglicans and Presbyterians tried their best to pretend it did – and they had a moderate degree of success in doing so.

            Had (1) “quasi-establishment” for both the Anglicans and Presbyterians NOT existed in Australia since 1788, and (2) after 1833 and Keble’s Assize sermon if the local Anglicans had had the right to nominate their clergy (rather than the Colonial Office having the final say), no Evangelical would have come to Australian Anglicanism outside Sydney since 1836, and Scots Presbyterianism would have almost died out due to the general dislike of Evangelical “preachifying”.

            Yet despite this environment, northern hemisphere Deism and Unitarianism (or, for that matter, Quakerism) failed to gain any significant traction in Australia beyond isolated pockets of Deism in the Presbyterians; and much of the famous Australian “secularism” is as a direct, and negative response to Evangelical excesses.

            Robert, I trust that this furthers your education on Australia, and hones your responses in this general area.

            A penny for your thoughts.


        • Outlaw Presbyterian

          The best reason “why” is that there isn’t *necessarily* a 1:1 connection, and if people want to keep positing that, I will simply say that the reforms of Satan-worshipper Peter the Great (whom most Orthodox today outside the “true orthodox” camp will not attack) necessarily led to the Bolshevkis.

      • Vincent Martini

        But did they really REJECT the “Reformed tradition” (as if this was monolithic)?

        Seems that they took seriously the cry for Semper Reformanda … they just never stopped.

  5. Anon@anon.com

    Then really scary part is the “hate mail” on the thread comments. In feel genuinely horribly for Jason and admire his courage. I hope someone has spent time delineating the specific differences between Rome and the Orthodox Catholic Faith, but whatever way he turns, pray for peace for him and his family

    • Canadian

      Mr. Stellman ran into the formidable Catholic apologist Bryan Cross a few years ago. I was also following that blog and nearly became Catholic. Stellman was always honest with the issues and took those issues to his own blog, interacting with the Truly Reformed there. Folks like Bugay have tried to rip him to shreds for years, it seems it did not work.
      I emailed him a couple weeks ago highlighting the issues that closed the door to Rome for me and sent me to Orthodoxy. I pray he does not just quickly go to the default position for the west….Rome. At least not without looking east to see which one really resembles the ancient faith.

      • Anon@anon.com

        I have seen some Orthodox who can be abrasive but nothing like this. Lord have mercy on us all.

  6. Travis

    This is a few reasons I left the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition. And an example of how they view the church.


    • Joshua Torrey


      Could you explain a little more of what you mean?

      I for one amnot a fan of Mark Driscoll. He is no example of Reformed teaching beyond his attempt at the 5-Points on the Canons of Dort; but I see a lot of these definitions as viable understandings of the church received from both Luther and Calvin. I’d be interested in knowing if your difficulty lies more with Driscoll’s application or with the genuine Reformers.

      – Joshua

      • Outlaw Presbyterian

        agreed. driscoll cannot be considered “reformed” since he rejects most of the defining marks of being reformed

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