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ON THE HISTORICO-PROPHETICAL INTERPRETATION OF THE EPISTLES TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES OF ASIA.
IT is, doubtless, familiar to as many as have at all gone into the history of the exposition of these seven Epistles, that a large body of interpreters, several of these distinguished for their piety and their learning, have not been content to take them merely for what they seem to announce themselves to be, seven Epistles of instruction, warning, consolation, addrest by the great Bishop of the Church to seven Churches of Asia; but have loudly proclaimed that they look much farther than this, that they contain far deeper mysteries than these. In the Scripture are such depths of meaning, so much remains to be discovered in them, in addition to all which has yet been discovered, that any one, whose incapacity is not patent, has a right to claim from us a patient and attentive ear, when he offers to lead us into these depths, to show us that, where we thought there were but golden harvests, the food of all waving 292upon the surface, there are also veins of richest metal below, the wealth of those who will be at the pains to dig for these hid treasures. And yet, at the same time, before we accept any such discoveries of treasures hid in the field of Scripture, it will be good always to remember, that there is a temptation to make Scripture mean more than in the intention of the Holy Ghost it does mean, as well as a temptation to make it mean less; and that we are bound by equally solemn obligations not to put upon it something of ours, as not to subtract from it any thing of its own (Rev. xxii. 18, 19); the interpretation in excess proving often nearly, or quite, as mischievous as that in defect. One has well said, “Mali moris est sensum in S. Scripturam inferre, non efferre;” and yet it is a practice which is by no means unusual. To inquire into the motives which induce to it would lead mle too far from nmy immediate subject; and some of them will, I think, appear before this essay is concluded.
But what, it may be asked, is this wider horizon, which, if we would meet the Divine intention, it is declared to us we should ascribe to these Epistles, and what the deeper mysteries which they contain? Before I attempt to answer this, let me first, by way of clearing the ground, set down what all are agreed on, matter on which there is no dispute; and then secondly, that which, if not all, yet tile greater 293number of competent persons would admit; that so, this done, and these points of universal or general. agreement separated off, we may better present to ourselves what are the precise points on which the controversy turns.
All, then, are agreed, and would freely allow, that these seven Epistles, however primarily addrest to these seven Churches of Asia, were also written for the edification of the Universal Church; in the same way, that is, as St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, or to Timothy, or St. James’ to the Dispersion, were written with this intention. The warnings, the incentives, the promises, the consolations, and, generally, the whole instruction in righteousness in these contained, are for every one in all times, so far as they may meet the several cases and conditions of men; what Christ says to those here addrest He says to all in similar conditions. So far there can be no question. “All Scripture,” and therefore this Scripture, “was written for our learning.”
But further, it may not meet with such universal acceptance, yet will, I suppose, be admitted by many thoughtful students of God’s Word, probably by most who have entered into the mystery of the heptad in Scripture, that these seven Churches of Asia are not an accidental aggregation, which might just as conveniently have been eight, or six, or any other number; that, on the contrary, 294there is a fitness in this number, and that these seven do in some sort represent the Universal Church; that we have a right to contemplate the seven as offering to us the great and leading aspects, moral and spiritual, which Churches gathered in the name of Christ out of the world will assume. No one, of course, affirming this, would mean that they could be contemplated as exhaustive of these aspects; for the infinite depth and richness of that new life which Christ brought into the world testifies itself in nothing more than in this, the rich variety of forms which this new life of his, embodying itself in the lives of men, will assume, the very malformations themselves witnessing in this way for the fulness of this life. But though not exhaustive (for what could be that?), they give us on a smaller scale, ὡς ἐν τύπῳ, the grander and more recurring features of that life; are not fragmentary, fortuitously strung together; but have a completeness, a many-sidedness, being probably selected for this very cause; here, perhaps, being the reason why Philadelphia is included and Miletus past by; Thyatira, outwardly so insignificant, chosen, when one might have expected Magnesia or Tralles. Then what notable contrasts have we here,—a Church face to face with danger and death (Smyrna), and a Church at ease, settling down upon its lees (Sardis); a Church 295with abundant means and loud profession, yet doing little or nothing for the furtherance of the truth (Laodicea), and a Church with little strength and little power, yet accomplishing a mighty work for Christ (Philadelphia); a Church intolerant of doctrinal error, yet too much lacking that love towards its Lord for which nothing else is a substitute (Ephesus), and over against this a Church not careful nor zealous, as it ought to be, for doctrinal purity, but diligent in the work and ministry of love (Thyatira); or, to review these same Churches from another point of view, a Church in conflict with heathen libertinism, the sinful freedom of the flesh (Ephesus), and a Church or Churches in conflict with Jewish superstition, the sinful bondage of the spirit (Pergamum, Philadelphia); or, for the indolence of man a more perilous case than either, Churches with no active forms of opposition to the truth in the midst of them, to brace their energies and to cause them, in the act of defending the imperilled truth, to know it better and to love it more (Sardis, Laodicea). That these Churches are more or less representative Churches, and were selected because they are so; that they form a complex within and among themselves, mutually fulfilling and completing one another; that the great Head of the Church contemplates them for the time being as symbolic of his Universal Church, implying as 296much in that mystic seven, and giving many other indications of the same,—this also will be accepted, if not by all, yet by many.
But the Periodists, as they have been called, the upholders of what may be fitly termed the historico-prophetical scheme of interpretation, are by no means satisfied with these admissions. They demand that we should recognize in these Epistles very much more than this; they affirm that we have in them, besides counsels to the Churches named in each, a prophetic outline of seven successive periods of the Church’s history; dividing, as they do, into these seven portions the whole time intervening between Christ’s ascension and his return in glory. As in making a statement for others, especially for those from whom one is about to dissent, it is always fairest, or, at any rate, is most satisfactory, to cite their own words, I will here quote two passages, one from Joseph Mede, another from Vitringa, in which they severally set forth that historico-prophetical scheme; which they both favoured and upheld; and certainly the statement of the case could scarcely be in more prudent or in abler hands. The modesty with which the first propounds it, is in striking contrast with the arrogant confidence of some others, who were well nigh disposed to make here a new article of faith, and the acceptance or rejection of this interpretation 297a test of orthodoxy. These are his words; they occur in one of his sermons (Works, 1672, p. 296): “It belongs not much to our purpose to inquire whether those seven Epistles concern historically and literally only the Churches here named, or whether they were intended for types or ages of the Church afterwards to come. It shall be sufficient to say, that if we consider their number, being seven (which is a number of revolution of times, and therefore in this Book the seals, trumpets, and vials also are seven); or if we consider the choice of the Holy Ghost, in that he taketh neither all, no, nor the most famous Churches then in the world, as Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and many other, and such, no doubt, as had need of instruction as well as those here named; if these things be well considered, it will seem that these seven Churches, besides their literal respect, were intended (and it may be chiefly) to be as patterns and types of the several ages of the Catholic Church from the beginning thereof unto the end of the world; that so these seven Churches should prophetically sample unto us a sevenfold temper and constitution of the whole Church according to the several ages thereof, answering the pattern of the Churches named here;” compare p. 905. Vitringa (Anacrisis Apocalypsios, p. 32): “Omnino igitur existimo Spiritum S. sub typo et emblemate 298septem Ecclesiarum Asiæ nobis mystice et prophetice voluisse depingere septema variantes status Ecclesiæ Christianæ, quibus successive conspiceretur usque ad adventum Domini et omnium rerum finem, phrasibus desumptis a nominibus, conditione et attributis ipsarum illarum Ecclesiarum Asiæ nobiliorum, quæ ad hunc usum et scopum sapienter adhibuit; sic tamen ut ipsæ illæ Ecclesiæ Asianæ simul in hoc speculo se ipsas videre, suasque tam virtutes quam vitia ex illis epistolis cognoscere, et quæ in iis sunt admonitiones et exhortationes ad se ipsas quoque referre et applicare possent; quippe quod summa suadet jubetque ratio. Quod enim alterius rei typum et figuram sustinebit symbolicam, ita affectum esse oportet ut attributa subjecti analogi in ipsâ illâ re figurante omnium primo demonstrari possint.”
I have cited these two writers of a later age; but the scheme itself, in one shape or another, may be traced to a much earlier date; though, indeed, it is very far from being as old as its favourers would have us to believe, claiming, as not seldom they do, several of the early Fathers, as early at least as Augustine and Chrysostom, for the first authors and upholders of it. They are, however, quite without warrant in this. No passage has been quoted, and I am convinced none could be quoted, bearing out their assertion here. In the 299eager debate carried on upon this subject for a considerable part of a century, the opponents of this interpretation repeatedly challenged the advocates to bring forward a single quotation from one Father, Greek or Latin, in its support; but none such was ever produced; so that Witsius has perfect right when he affirms, “Nullibi id dicunt [antiqui] quod viri isti eruditi volunt, quibuscum hæc nobis instituta disputatio est; nimirum proprie, literaliter atque ex intentione Spiritûs Sancti verbis harum Epistolarum delineari, non quod Johannis tempore in Asiæ Ecclesiis agebatur, sed quod in universali Ecclesiâ septem temporum periodis ordine succedentibus futurum erat. Id non liquet antiquorum ulli vel in mentem venisse.” This quotation is from his essay, De Septen Eccles. Apocalyp. sensu historico an prophetico (Opp. t. i. pp. 640-741), remarkable for the fairness and moderation with which all that can be said on one side and the other is considered. It is quite true that Augustine, with others before and after him, recognized that symbolic representative character of these Epistles, of which I just now spoke; saw a mystery in the seven;3838 Andreas, the earliest commentator on the Apocalypse whose work has reached us, gives this as the reason why the Lord, through St. John, addressed Himself exactly to seven Churches; διὰ τοῦ ἑβδοματικοῦ ἀριθμοῦ τὸ μυστικὸν τῶν ἁπανταχῆ ἐκκλησιῶν σημαίνων. Augustine (De Civ. Dei, xvii. 4), explaining the Canticle of Hannah, in which it is said, “The barren hath born seven” (1 Sam. ii. 5), goes on to say, “Hic totum quod prophetabatur eluxit agnoscentibus numerum septenarium quo est universa Ecclesiæ significata perfectio. Propter quod et Johannes Apostolus ad septem scribit Ecclesias, eo modo se ostendens ad unius plenitudinem scribere;” or, as the last clause of a similar statement reads elsewhere (Exp. in Gal. ii. 7): “quæ [Ecclesiæ] utique universalis Ecclesiæ personam gerunt;” cf. Ep. xlix. § 2. And Gregory the Great almost word for word (Moral. xvii. 27): “Unde et septem Ecclesiis scribit Johannes Apostolus, ut unam Catholicam, septiformis gratiæ plenam Spiritu designaret;” cf. Præf. c. 8. but to recognize them as 300historico-prophetical is quite a different matter, and of any allowance of this there is no vestige among them; or that it had so much as come into their minds.
The Spiritualists, or extreme Franciscans, are the first among whom this scheme of interpretation assumed any prominence. It is well known to those who are at all familiar with this wonderful body of men, what an important part the distribution of the Church’s history into seven ages played in their theology, and what weapons they found in this armoury for the assault of the dominant Church and hierarchy of Rome. Looking every where in Scripture for traces of these seven periods, it is not strange that they should have found such in these seven Epistles. At their first rise, one but recently dead, high in reputation for sanctity throughout 301the Church, himself regarded as little short of an apocalyptic seer, I mean the Abbot Joachim of Floris (he died in 1202), had already shown the way in this interpretation;3939 For an account of Joachim of Floris’ seven ages, see Hahn, Gesch. d. Ketzer im Mittelalter, vol. iii. p. 112; and Engelhardt, Kirch. Gesch. Abbandl. p. 107. and the Spiritualists did not fail to adjust the seven ages of the Church and the seven Epistles prophetic of them, so as these should prophesy all good of themselves, and all evil of Rome.
It is evident that when the scheme was adopted two or three centuries later by theologians of the Reformed Church, it would require readjustment and redistribution throughout, at once chronological and dogmatic. This, however, was easily effected. The whole thing was a subjective fancy of men’s minds, not an objective truth of God’s Word, and would therefore oppose no serious resistance. It was easy to give it what new shape was required by the new conditions under which it should now appear. After the Reformation, the first in whom I meet this interpretation of the seven Churches, as predictive of the seven ages of the Church and foreshadowing their condition, is an English divine, Thomas Brightman (b. 1557, d. 1607). He belonged to the Puritan school of divines, as they existed within the bosom of the Anglican Church, 302and though in opposition to its spirit, not as yet separated from it; but his work, Apocalypsis Apocalypseos, 1612, avouches him a man of no ordinary gifts, and of warm and earnest piety; and Marckius has perfect right when he says of this work, “eruditionem et pietatem non vulgarem spirat.” But although he, and Joseph Mede, as we have seen (he died in 1638), and Henry More,4040 Prophetical Exposition of the Seven Epistles sent to the Seven Churches in Asia from Him that is, and was, and is to come,—Theological Works, London, 1708, pp. 719-764; first published in 1669. lent to this suggestion the authority of their names, it never seems to have struck any vigorous root in England, nor to have stirred up much controversy for or against it. It was in the Reformed Churches of Holland and Germany, but predominantly in the former, that this periodic interpretation first assumed any prominence or importance. There indeed, during the middle and latter part of the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth, it was debated with animation, and often with something more than animation. The very able Præfatio de Septem N. T. Periodis, which Marckius has prefixed to his Commentary on the Apocalypse, 1699, shows how very angry the disputants could be on one side and the other.
The theologian who by his adoption of the historico-prophetical interpretation gave an importance 303to it, and procured for it an acceptance, which in any other way it would scarcely have obtained, was Cocceius (1603-1669). It is indeed with him only the part of a larger whole—one among many testimonies for a divinely-intended division into seven periods of the whole history of the Church. This division found favour with many; but in no one does it recur with so great a frequency, exercise so powerful an influence on his interpretation of Scripture, constitute so vital a portion of his theology, as in him. The fame of Cocceius, if it ever reached England, has now quite passed away; but his influence for good oil the Protestant communities of Holland and also of Germany, as the promoter of a Biblical in place of a scholastical theology, leading as he did those Churches from the arid wastes of a new scholasticism to the living fountains of the Word of God, was immense, and survives to the present day. But this distribution into seven periods of the Church’s history, seven before Christ’s coming, and seven after, is a sort of “fixed idea” with him. It is indeed his desire to make Scripture the rule in every thing, and to find all that concerns the spiritual life and development of man cast in a scriptural framework, this desire in season and out of season, which has led him astray. And thus it is that he finds, or where he does not find he makes, a prophecy of these periods 304every where; in the seven days of creation, in the seven beatitudes, in the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, in the seven parables of Matthew xiii.; not seldom forcing into artificial arrangements by seven, Scriptures which yield themselves not naturally and of their own accord, but only under violent pressure and constraint, to any articulation of the kind, as Hannah’s Prayer, the Song of Moses, of Deborah, the Song of Songs, not a few of the Psalms, and, I dare say, much else in Scripture besides.4141 Let me rescue from vast unread folios of his, as not very alien to the matter we have in hand, one noble passage, and he abounds in such, on the analogy of faith, and the help which the different portions of Scripture mutually afford to the right understanding of one another. It is from the Præfatio ad Comm. in Proph. Min., Opp. tom. v., without pagination: “Habet enim divina institutio Scripturæ instar augusti palatii, in quo ordine consideant innumeri seniores, qui viritim admissum novum discipulum erudiant, a collegis suis dicta confirment, roborent, explicent, illustrent, nunc fusius dicta contrahant, nunc contractiora diffundant et diducant, generalius dicta distinguant, distincta generatim innuant, regulas exemplis fulciant, exempla in regulis judicent, ita ut omnium de eâdem re agentium dictorum is sensus accipi debeat, qui est ullius, et qui nulli refragetur, et plena institutio ea demum censeri quæ omnium virorum Dei sit vox, συμφωνία et ὁμόνοια.”
With all his excesses, however, I do not think Cocceius ever refused to these Epistles a true historical foundation. The historico-prophetic meaning was no doubt far the most precious in his eyes; and it had good right to be, if only it had 305been designed by the Spirit; but he did not deny that there had been actual Churches at Ephesus, Smyrna, and the rest, which were primarily addrest, and to whose condition, at the time they were written, these Epistles fitted. Others, however, have proceeded to far greater lengths. They have refused to see’ any reference whatever to Churches actually, at the time when this vision was seen, subsisting in these cities of Asia, and to their spiritual condition. These they regard merely as the machinery for the conveyance of the prophecy; the seven Epistles not in the least expressing, except, it might be, here and there by accidental and undesigned coincidence, the actual condition of these seven Churches. Despite of any thing which these Epistles seem to affirm to the contrary, the Church of Ephesus, according to their view, may at this time have been tolerant of false teachers, and Thyatira intolerant; Philadelphia may have been slack in deeds of faith and love, and Laodicea fervent in spirit, and Sardis with not a few only, but many names, that had not defiled their garments. No Antipas had actually resisted to blood at Pergamum; there was no tribulation of ten days imminent upon Smyrna.4242 Floerke, in an able work on the Millennium, Lehre vom tausendjährigen Reiche, Marburg, 1859, is the latest denier in toto of an historical element in these Epistles; see p. 59 sqq.306
This extravagance may be dismissed in a few words. Origen is justly condemned, that, advancing a step beyond other allegorists, who slighted the facts of the Old Testament history for the sake of mystical meanings which they believed to lie behind them, he denied, concerning many events recorded there as historical, that they actually happened at all; rearing the superstructure of his mystical meaning, not on the establishment of the literal sense, but on its ruins. Every reverent student of the Word of God must feel that so he often lets go a substance in snatching at a shadow, that shadow itself really eluding his grasp after all. He who in this sense assails the strong historic substructures of Scripture, may not know all which he is doing; but he is indeed doing his best to turn the glorious superstructure built on these, which, though resting on earth, pierces heaven, into a mere sky-pageant painted on the air, a cloud-palace waiting to be shifted and changed by every breath of the caprice of man, and at length fading and melting into the common air. It was not without reason that Augustine, himself not wholly to be acquitted of excesses in this direction, did yet urge so strongly the necessity of maintaining, before and above all, the historic letter of the Scripture, whatever else to this might be superadded (Serm. ii. 6): “Ante omnia, fratres, hoc in nomine Domini et admonemus 307quantum possumus et præcipimus, ut quando auditis exponi sacramentum Scripturæ narrantis quæ gesta sunt, prius illud quod lectum est credatur sic gestum quomodo lectum est, ne subtracto fundamento rei gestæ, quasi in aëre quæratis ædificare.” Similar warnings in his writings continually recur. Who indeed could continue sure that any thing presented in Scripture as history, with all apparent marks of history about it, was yet history at all, and not something wholly different, parable, or allegory, or prophecy, if these Epistles, which St. John is bidden to send to the seven Churches of Asia, which profess to enter minutely into their spiritual condition, were yet never sent to them at all, had no relation whatever to them, more, that is, than to any other portion of the universal Church?
But leaving these, and addressing ourselves only to the more moderate upholders of the periodic scheme of interpretation, to those, namely, who admit a literal sense, while they superinduce upon it a prophetical, we ask, what slightest hint or intimation does the Spirit of God give that we have here to do with the great successive acts and epochs of the kingdom of God in the course of its gradual evolution here upon. earth? Where are the fingerposts pointing this way? What is there, for instance, of chronological succession? Does not every 308thing, on the contrary, mark simultaneity, and not succession? The seven candlesticks are seen at the same instant; the seven Churches named in the same breath. How different is it where succession in time is intended; see, for instance, Dan. ii. 32, 33, 39, 40; vii. 6, 7, 9. On this matter Marckius says very well (Præf. § 52): “Attamen ut Ecclesias has agnoscamus pro typicis, sive significantibus ex Dei intentione alias Ecclesias aliorum locorum et temporum, oportet nos a Deo doceri. Typos enim, non magis quam allegorias, pro lubitu nostro in Scripturam inferre licet, cum non sit ἰδίας ἐπιλύσεως, propriæ interpretationis, 2 Pet. i. 20. Non sufficit ad typum constituendum nuda convenientia, quæ inter res, personas, et eventus plurimos a nobis observari potest, sed oportet nobis amplius constet de divino consilio quo rem similem servire voluerit alteri præsignificandæ, cogitationibusque nostris illuc ducendis.”
But all such objections, with all those others which it would only be too easy to make, might indeed be set aside or overborne, if any marvellous coincidence between these Epistles and the after-course of the Church’s development could be made out; if history set its seal to these, and attested that they were prophecy indeed; for when a key fits perfectly well the wards of a very complicated lock, and opens it without an effort, it is difficult not to 309believe that they were made for one another. But there is nothing here of the kind. There is no agreement among themselves on the part of the interpreters of the historico-prophetical school. Each one has his own solution of the enigma, his own distribution of the several epochs; or, if this is too much to affirm, there is at any rate nothing approaching to a general consensus among them. Take, for instance, the distribution of Vitringa. For him Ephesus represents the condition of the Church from the day of Pentecost to the outbreak of the Decian persecution; Smyrna, from the Decian persecution to that of Diocletian, both inclusive; Pergamum, from the time of Constantine until the close of the seventh century; Thyatira, the Church in its mission to the nations during the first half of the middle ages; Sardis, from the close of the twelfth century to the Reformation; Philadelphia, the first century of the Reformation; Laodicea, the Reformed Church at the time when he was writing; compare Lange, Das Apostolische Zeitalter, vol. ii. p. 472, for a nearly similar distribution.
There are two or three fortunate coincidences here between the assumed prophecy and the fact; without such indeed the whole notion must have been abandoned long ago as hopeless; such could scarcely have been avoided. Smyrna, for instance, represents excellently well the ecclesia pressa in its 310two last and most terrible struggles with heathen Rome; so too for such Protestant expositors as see the Papacy in the scarlet woman of Babylon, the Jezebel of Thyatira appears exactly at the right time, coincides with the Papacy at its height, yet at the same time with judgment at the door in the great revolt which was even then preparing. But I would ask any one fairly grounded in the subject whether there is any true articulation of Church history in the distribution above made? any general felicity of correspondence between what are averred to be the prophetic outlines with the historic realities adduced as fulfilling them? Take, for instance, Philadelphia, as representing the Reformation period. The praise bestowed on the Philadelphian Angel may be said to culminate in these words, “Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it” (iii. 8). Can any thing, on the contrary, be sadder than the way in which, when “an open door” was set before the Reformers, they suffered it to so great an extent to be closed on them again? There was a time, some five and twenty or thirty years after Luther had begun to preach, when Austria and Bavaria and Styria and Poland, and, in good part, France, had all been won for the Reformation. Thirty years more had not elapsed when they all were lost again; and it was confined within the far narrower limits which 311it occupies at the present day (see Ranke, , History of the Popes in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries)—this door, once open, having been closed mainly through the guilt of those contests, any thing but Philadelphian (for the names too are pressed into service) among the Reformers themselves.
Then, again, other interpreters, as I have already observed, distribute the epochs according to schemes altogether diverse from this. Thus it is far more common among the Protestant theologians of the seventeenth century to apportion, not five Churches, but only the first four, to the pre-Reformation period; to claim, as Brightman does, Philadelphia, with all its graces, for themselves, and, as must necessarily follow, to contemplate Sardis as representing the Church of the actual Reformation. Certainly the Reformation had blots and blemishes enough; but its faults were those of zeal and passion; had nothing in common with that hypocritical form of godliness, that death under shows of life, imputed to Sardis; and one might have expected that any dutiful child of the Reformation, who at all felt the immense debt of gratitude which he and the whole Church owed to it, notwithstanding all its shortcomings, would have hesitated long as to the accuracy of a scheme which should brand it with this dishonour. See on this, Marckius, Præf. 312§ 55; and on the other hand as saying, and saying well, whatever there is to be said in support of the historico-prophetical school in this particular aspect, see Henry More, at pp. 756 sqq., in his treatise already referred to.
Much more might be urged on the arbitrary artificial character of all the attempted adaptations of Church history to these Epistles; but this Essay has already run to a greater length than I intended; and indeed it is not needful to say more. Where there were no preestablished harmonies in the Divine intention between the one and the other, as I am persuaded here there were none, it could not have been otherwise. The multitude of dissertations, essays, books, which have been written, and still are being written, in support of this scheme of interpretation, must remain a singular monument of wasted ingenuity and misapplied toil; of the disappointment which must result from a futile looking into Scripture for that which is not to be found there,—from a resolution to draw out from it that which he who draws out must first himself have put in. Mien will never thus make Scripture richer. They will have made it much poorer for themselves, if they nourish themselves out of it with the fancies of men, in place of the truths of God.
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