Forgiveness is a difficult concept for many people in the world today to grasp. The idea of completely pardoning someone for their mistakes is becoming a more and more foreign concept, making people take notice when true forgiveness is offered up to another person. True forgiveness is defined as to give up resentment of or claim to requital for, a pardon. There are numerous thoughts and illustrations on how this action can and should take place within the world. Two authors who were particularly powerful in their portrayal of forgiveness were J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Arguably these authors did not portray the act of forgiveness in the same manner as each other; however, the theme of forgiveness plays a very important role in their personal views and thus is very apparent through their works, their letters, and their statements. These authors believe strongly in the power of forgiveness, as a means to survive within the modern world and as a calling by their Christian faith.
J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, and C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, were two very different men. Tolkien was married with a family, while Lewis, for most of his years, was unmarried; Tolkien was ruminative, while Lewis argumentative; Tolkien was a practicing Roman Catholic, Lewis was a practicing Ulster Protestant. Tolkien thought of himself as, in some sense, recording ancient truth, not inventing. Lewis’s writing was imaginative, and for him imagination was the organ of meaning, not of truth. For Tolkien, therefore, writing was a task at which one labored, and he was slow to publish. By contrast, Lewis’s writing always seems to be a thing of ease (qtd. in Meilaender). However, these men had a deep friendship which was well documented. While these men had striking differences, they were also strikingly alike in some unique respects: in their ‘unworldliness,’ in their indifference to their surroundings, and most importantly in their deep and abiding faith (qtd. in Meilaender). It is because of their faith that the theme of forgiveness can be seen running through many of their literary works.
One reason they did not portray forgiveness in the same way as one another was because of the differences they had in terms of the audiences they were gauging their work towards. Tolkien wrote through the lenses of an author with the Christian faith; his works, however, were ever overtly Christian in terms of allegory or analogical. Lewis, on the other hand, admittedly preached about Christianity through the works he produced and published. Lewis wrote fictional works that are primarily classified as analogical. Lewis also wrote numerous essays with a strongly Christian slant that expressed his beliefs on numerous truths he believed to be evident in the Christian faith.
Many argue that there can be no real Christian themes within Tolkien’s work The Lord of the Rings because it is set in a time predating Christianity; however, upon closer inspection there are overtones within the work which allude heavily to the Gospel. He believed that the story of Christ was simply a true myth -- a myth that really happened. Tolkien believed that myths, as in the one he wrote, The Lord of the Rings, were the best ways in which to convey the truths which would he otherwise inexpressible (Pearce 5). Tolkien wanted write a myth -- “a myth for England” -- that conveyed undeniable Christian truths to the world in a medium, which he believed, would be the best way in which to relay these truths to people who would otherwise be unreceptive to the concepts which were to be portrayed. The power to bestow forgiveness on another person, in Tolkien’s faith, is the true sign of a king among men, and in turn he used his myth (The Lord of the Rings) to portray this truth in a manner others would be willing to accept.
One of the most prominent themes running through The Lord of the Rings is the idea of forgiveness. In a letter to his son Michael, Tolkien shared with him where he first learned the power and necessity of forgiveness. “I first learned charity and forgiveness from him (Fr. Francis), and in the light of it pierced even the ‘liberal’ darkness out of which I came” (Letters 376). Tolkien recognized the power which forgiveness gave him in bringing him out of the despair he had encountered after his father’s death, and in turn he wished to share the power of forgiveness to help people come out of their despair. Tolkien’s book echoes the Gospel of salvation not by moralistic good works, but by faith and forgiveness alone (Wood). The theme of undeserved forgiveness can be found throughout the duration of The Lord of the Rings, very reminiscent of the ultimate Christian work: the Bible. “Only a radically orthodox Christian such as Tolkien would have forgiveness offered to the terribly undeserving Gollum and Saruman and even Grima Wormtongue” (Wood). Within the context of the book, numerous arguably deserving and undeserving characters are given the opportunity to be forgiven and many it must be noted choose not to take the offer; however, it is the very fact that they are allowed to refuse such an opportunity allows Tolkien to illustrate the importance of the forgiveness of sins.
As Ralph C. Wood stated Tolkien offers forgiveness to those characters within the book, which many would argue are completely undeserving, those which never in the course of the novel ask to be forgiven. When Aragorn, Gimli, Gandalf, and Legolas reach the land of Rohan they encounter a man by the name of Wormtounge. He is the King of Rohan’s, Théoden’s advisor and Saruman’s underling. It is in this position of power that he begins to abuse and brainwash Theoden into becoming a feeble and fearful man who can no longer think for himself, He accomplished all this through telling lies and half-truths. “Gandalf spoke in a clear cold voice, ‘A witless worm you (Grima) have become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth” (LR 503). He (Grima) was leading his king astray by giving him false wisdom so that Rohan and its people would not stir when Saruman began his conquests. Gandalf the Wizard, however, came in time to lift the spell of Grima’s word off of Theoden.
It is Theoden, after his “reawakening,” that offers a prize greatly undeserved to Grima, the man who had done everything in his power to undermine him. “‘Do you hear this, Wormtongue?’ said Theoden. ‘This is your choice: to ride with me to war, and let us see in battle whether you are true; or to go now, whither you will’” (LR 509). Theoden was willing to forgive Grima if he wished to prove himself loyal; however, Grima decided not to accept this offer and ran off. Theoden helps to illustrate Tolkien’s theme of the undeserved being given forgiveness simply stated: “‘See that he does no harm to any, but do not hurt him or hinder him. Give him a horse, if he wishes it” (LR 509). Theoden had the ability to punish this traitor in any form he wished, yet he decided to forgive the man who almost destroyed his kingdom.
Theoden was trapped under the influence of Grima Wormtongue. He was chained by all the deceit and lies which Grima had told him. It is through his forgiveness of Grima that he is allowed to achieve even more freedom than he had already achieved through the realization of the deceit he had been taken in by. Lewis Smedes comments in his book Forgive and Forget:
When you forgive another person you are surprised at
your own freedom by what you did. You forgive in freedom
and then move on to greater freedom. Freedom is strength;
you know you have it when you have the power to forgive (143).
Theoden proved not only to Grima, but to all of his subjects that he had once again achieved the strength and power necessary to govern and rule his people in times of war. He was able to prove this through his power to forgive and undeserving subject of his, Grima. Tolkien acknowledges the power forgiveness has over the people who are bestowing the forgiveness as a means to regain a sense of authority over the situation.
Tolkien does not only use Theoden as a character who signaled his regaining of power through his ability to forgive others. Tolkien also allows Gandalf to exert this type of power to another character, Saruman. For thousands of years Saruman was the head of the Wizard’s Counsel, Saruman the White. However, over time he began to become corrupted by thte dark powers. He began to crave power, he imprisoned Gandalf the Grey, and began rising up army of Orcs and Wild Men to try consqering the still free lands and to search for the Ring. Gandalf, however, did manage to excape, and was able to reconnect with the Fellowship, making plans to overcome Saruman and his new army. Saruman’s endeavors ultimately proved faulty and he was cornered into his tower, Orthanc. It is when Gandalf enoucnters his one time captor again that he proves his new power by offering forgiveness to the Wizard who once commanded him.
‘I do not wish to kill you, or hurt you, as you would
know. And I have the power to protect you. I am giving
you a last chance. You can leave Orthanc, free- if you
choose. [But] when I say “free,” I mean “free”: free
from bond, or chain or command; to go where you will,
even, even to Mordor. But you will surrender to me
the Key of Orthanc, and your staff. They shall be
pledges of your conduct’ (LR, 569).
Like Grima, Saruman did not accept the forgiveness that was being offered him.
Tolkien allowed his readers to truly understand the power which Gandalf, through his new position as Gandalf the White, now possessed through his ability to offer forgiveness to the Wizard that betrayed him. Gandalf’s ability to forgive his enemy also highlighted another Christian truth which was held by Tolkien. He believed that one must be willing to forgive one’s enemies in order to continue forward and be on the side of the good. C. S. Lewis wrote in his essay, “Dangers of National Repentance”: ‘We must forgive all our enemies or be damned’ (191). Tolkien upheld this view Lewis expressed. He could not allow his great mythic characters to not forgive because it would have made Gandalf no better than Saruman. “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive your sins” (NIV, Matt 6:19-20). Jesus commanded his followers that in order for them to be forgiven they needed to forgive those who sinned against them. Tolkien showed this same concept through Gandalf’s interactions; he could not expect anyone to begin forgiving if he himself was not willing to do the same. The reader realizes that much of the power that is perceived to be held by Gandalf is the power to forgive. Granted Saruman never forgave Gandalf, but that is not necessary for him to do because he is not one of the “good” characters, which Tolkien uses to teach the mythical truths of goodness and forgiveness through.
Another character interaction leading to the offering of forgiveness that must be noted within The Lord of the Rings is regarding Gollum. Gollum was first introduced in Tolkien’s children’s story The Hobbit. It is Gollum from whom Bilbo “wins” the One Ring. However, it is only in The Lord of the Rings in which the complete story of Gollum is told. Gollum has been almost completely corrupted by the power of the ring. He is completely consumed by his want of it. It is this consuming fire within Gollum that brings him into the lives of Frodo and Sam, Frodo’s faithful companion. Gollum continues to follow the hobbits because he wants the Ring back, but the hobbits outsmart him and make him promise on the Ring to be their guide towards Mordor. During the course of their journey together it becomes very apparent that Gollum is constantly engaged in an inner struggle between his want of the Ring and his loyalty to Frodo who has showed him compassion. Unfortunately, the evil side of Gollum eventually wins out, and he sends Frodo and Sam to what he believes is their death with the spider Shelob. “Gollum had beheld her and promised to bring her food. She lusted for sweeter meat. And Gollum brought it for her” (LR 707-708). Luckily Sam and Frodo escape the trap and continue on their way towards Mount Doom to destroy the Ring. It’s only when they arrive at Mount Doom that they again encounter Gollum. Frodo is unable to throw the Ring in the fire. Gollum, however, seeing Frodo with the Ring springs forward and bites off Frodo’s finger with the Ring on it. He is so happy he begins dancing around, only to fall into the fire himself and taking with him.
It is when the Ring is no longer with Frodo that he is able to realize what he had almost done. He realized he would have never been able to destroy the Ring on his own, and is immediately thankful to this little pitiful creature.
‘But for him (Gollum), Sam, I could not have destroyed
the Ring; The Quest wouM have been in vain, even at the
bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is
achieved, and now all is over’ (LR 926).
Frodo forgave Gollum unconditionally, the creature had bit off his finger, yet he still saw the good deed he had done through falling into the fire with the Ring. This allowed Frodo to forgive Gollum of all his wrong-doings and in turn allowed him to achieve peace and salvation from the Evil that he had possessed with his bearing of the Ring. Tolkien himself acknowledged the power that the forgiveness of Gollum had in Frodo’s life, (qtd. in “Undefinable Shadowlands”) Throughout Tolkien’s novel it becomes very apparent to the power he places on the forgiveness of others. He understood this particular Christian theme better than most other authors and in turn he placed it within his myth for England so that it would be passed down and accepted by future generations.
In Wood’s article “Tolkien’s Orthodoxy: A Response to Berit Kjos” he mentions the characters of Gollum, Saruman, and Grima Wormtongue as having been offered forgiveness because they were undeserving of the opportunity. However, Tolkien does not simply illustrate the power of forgiveness by offering grace to undeserving characters. He also illustrates the power of forgiveness through the character of Boromir. Boromir was the eldest son of the Steward of Gondor who was sent to Rivendell in search of wisdom from Elrond. It was when he was in Rivendell that Boromir volunteered to become a member of the Fellowship devoted to helping the Ring-Bearer, Frodo, on his travels towards Mordor. During the course of the journey Boromir had many interactions with the other members of the Fellowship; however, it through his relationship with Aragorn that Tolkien uses to help illustrate a truly forgiving relationship. Boromir and Aragorn were brothers in arms during the course of the Fellowship; they were continually fighting side by side throughout the beginning of the journey to destroy the Ring. Through much for their interaction together, Boromir and Aragorn have a brother-like relationship. Aragorn often plays the role of the elder brother chiding and watching over Boromir when they are on their journey together.
Boromir began his journey very humbly; however, after he is exposed to great temptation of the Ring he began to falter. After he had been in the presence of the One Ring that binds and rules all others, he begins to yearn for that power and place the entire world at jeopardy by trying to take the Ring from Frodo, the Ring-Bearer.
“How it angers me! Fool! Obstinate fool! Running
willfully to death and ruining our cause. If any
mortals have claim to the Ring, it is the men of
Numenor, and not Halfings. It is not yours
save by unhappy chance. It might have been mine.
It should be mine. Give it to me!” (LR 390)
He knows as well as everyone else in the Fellowship that no mortal can be allowed to have the Ring because it will lead to the destruction of not only them personally, but also to the world. Boromir was going to betray everything he knew and loved all for power, he became a prodigal to his family, to his country, and his world.
Boromir, like Edmund in Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, was ashamed by his actions and is forced to come back humbled to the people he betrayed. In Boromir’s case he was able to confess to Aragorn and to be forgiven for his betrayal.
‘I tried to take the Ring from Frodo, I am sorry.
Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save
my people! I have failed!’ said Boromir.
‘No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing
his brow. ‘You have conquered. Few have gained
such victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall
not fall!’ (LR 404)
Aragorn forgave and even gave a gift to Boromir for his return from his step of betrayal towards the Fellowship. He allowed Boromir to see himself in victory over the temptation that forced him to betray all that he loved, Aragorn gave Boromir the greatest compliment possible by stating that he had overcome a burden that few before him had ever overcome by not taking the Ring when he could have taken it by force. Tolkien’s Christian faith and subsequent model becomes very apparent through this particular episode of forgiveness. Tolkien was well versed in the Bible, being a convert to Roman Catholicism at very young age (Humphrey 25). The Roman Catholic church believes strongly in the power of confession of sin and the subsequent Forgiveness of those sins by God, “and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his (Jesus) name among all nations” (NIV, Luke 24:47). Though Boromir existed in time before Jesus’ teachings, Tolkien still illustrated the need to repent and confess the sins which one person committed against others in order to be forgiven for the mistakes (sins) that one had inflicted upon others.
Lewis was much like Tolkien when it came to writing, They both wrote about subjects that really mattered to them, and he, like Tolkien, valued and claimed the Christian ideal of forgiveness given to those in the world who both deserve and do not deserve to be given forgiveness. Lewis was an atheist for much of his life, but was converted in 1931 and became a devoted Christian after he had a conversation discussing the nature of myths with his close friend, J. R. R. Tolkien (Pearce 57). After his conversion he began to use many of his books as platforms to share the Christian faith. Throughout his published works he mentions the power and the necessity of forgiveness repeatedly. Within these works there were several particular aspects of forgiveness that appear over and over again which need to be further explored in order to comprehend his view on the subject and how he conveyed these beliefs in comparison to Tolkien’s view on the subject as seen through his respective works.
Lewis, like Tolkien, felt strongly that Christians were called to the act of forgiveness. Lewis writes in his book Mere Christianity of the power of Jesus Christ to forgive all sins. Lewis argues that this is a huge statement of power, much like the argument that Lewis Smedes had presented (143). “This is what Jesus (Christ) did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured” (Mere 51). Jesus claimed authority over all things, as Lewis stated, and within his authority he has commanded his followers to forgive all wrongs committed against them (NIV, Mark 6:19-20). Like Tolkien, he wanted to present this Christian truth / theme to all of his readers so that they may begin to grasp the calling that is placed on their lives by their all-powerful Savior, Jesus Christ.
Lewis understood the difficulty that many had with forgiving those that have injured them. In his book Mere Christianity he states, “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive” (114). Mere Christianity began when Lewis took to the airwaves during World War 2, “talks in which he set out simply to ‘explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times” (Back cover). Lewis recognizes the fact that forgiving the one who inflicted pain, especially during times of war, is very difficult, but regardless of this difficulty it is still demanded in Christianity.
I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could
do - I can do precious little- I am telling you what
Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there,
right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our
sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ (114—115).
To Lewis forgiveness is one of the foundations on which the Christian faith rest upon and within that followers of Christ are to attempt to follow this example set by Christ and forgive everyone, including oneself, regardless as to whether or not it is easy, because it will not be.
The relationship between the Pevensie siblings is one of Lewis’s most powerful illustrations of forgiveness. It is in Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the reader is first introduced to Edmund Pevensie and his struggles. While Edmund is attending school in country he begins struggling because is continually feeling as if he is in Peter’s shadow. “Siblings endlessly compare themselves with one another in [certain] arenas, and the process is heavily tinged with jealous concerns about superiority and inferiority” (Bank and Kahn 219). It is Edmunds attempt to escape his brother’s shadow that leads to his betrayal of his siblings.
In the story of Edmund, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy, the youngest, was the first of the Pevensie siblings to discover Narnia, but it was Edmund who found it next. It was on this trip that Edmund met the White Witch. Upon their first meeting the Witch fed him enchanted Turkish Delight and promised him more of the Turkish Delight and a chance to be King of Narnia if he were to bring his siblings to her. “I have no children of my own. I want a nice boy whom I could bring up as a Prince and who would be King of Narnia when I am gone” (LWW 34). Still driven by his desire to come out from Peter’s shadow he agrees to the Witch’s proposition. When the rest of his family comes to Narnia; however, they do not wish to go towards the Witch’s castle and Edmund decides to go off and leave his family behind to visit the Witch and receive his prize. “He did want Turkish Delight and to be a Prince (and later a King) and to pay Peter out for calling him a beast” (LWW 85). It is only after he arrives at the Witch’s castle does he begin to realize what type of trouble he has gotten himself into with his decision to separate from his family, effectively becoming a prodigal brother to them. Surprisingly, when Edmund escapes his predicament, he is accepted back with open arms by his brother Peter -- the brother with whom he had been living in the “shadow”, and for that matter his other siblings, never stopped 1oving Edmund, despite their disappointment. Peter, Susan, and Lucy upheld and helped Lewis illustrate the Christian theme, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (MV, Colossians 3:13).
The Chronicles of Narnia are Lewis’s most famous and powerful fictional work published, and within these books many biblical principles are shared in the form of a children’s series. When writing this book Lewis kept in mind that people seek to understand God’s nature through the use of analogies. The story of Edmund greatly resembles Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, a story about the forgiveness a person gives another when they admit their wrongs and ask for forgiveness from those they had wronged. In this parable the farmer has two sons, and one of his sons decided to take his portion fo the money before his father’s death and leave. During his travels in distant countries he squandered away all of the money his father had given him. The son, not wanting to return to his father broke, began hiring himself out to earn money. After a timehe “returned to his senses” and went back to his home and humbled himself, asking his father for forgiveness. His father immediately forgave his wayward son and accepted him back into the family with the words, “he was lost and is found” (NIV, Luke 15). The similarites between this biblical story and the story of Edmund are striking. Peter had always played the patriarch of the family and it is easy to understand how Lewis easily slipped him into the role of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, and bring this tale of forgiveness to a whole new socitey of children who had not yet heard the tale.
Lewis, unlike Tolkien, did not solely use fiction as a platform from which he could preach about the pwer of forgiveness to the world around him. Within the context of the interactions between Edmund and his family, the power of forgiveness becomes very real to the reader, but this story only highlights one particular aspect of Lewis’s views on forgiveness. When Edmund had been forgiven by his family for his betrayal, he was never shown giving forgiveness to anyone else, but Lewis argues that is not a realistic view of God’s calling to his followers.
To forgive the incessant provocations of daily life –
to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the
bullying husband... – how can we do it? Only, I think,
by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words
when we say in our prayers each night “Forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse
it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves (“On Forgiveness” 125).
Arguably, thi sessay is gauged to a much different audience than his prior noted work of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lewis writes in a much more straight forward manner to the adults in his audience. He claims that the Bible mandates followers of Christ to forgive repeatedly. In Matthew 5:39 Jesus speaks to his followers, “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (NIV). Lewis followed this concept and preached to his readers the same; they must repeatedly forgive the offenses that are cast upon them because it is what Christ commands of those who follow Him.
Lewis wrote this essay to Father Patrick Irwin for publication in 1947 but Father Irwin was transferred before he could publish it. It was placed into the Bodleian Library and was published in 1975 (Adams). In this essay he was trying to answer the question as to why it states in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” To Lewis it seemed such a straightforward and obvious answer to him and in turn should be to all Christians, but he realized that the original writers of the Creed were correct in recording such a basic and intrinsic aspect of the Christian faith. Lewis argues in the essay “On Forgiveness” that Christians all too often attempt to make excuses for their sin and never own up to their sin and admit that they are in the wrong. It is only after that one lays claim to their sin, Lewis’s argues, that they will be able to be forgiven. Lewis also argues the same must be said about those who sin against one another. There may be some degree of excuses for the offense and that can be overlooked, but the real issue must be we are to forgive the sin, in the like manner that God forgives us our sin. “To be Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable of you” (“On Forgiveness” 125).
Lewis’s view of forgiveness relies heavily, as seen through the examples of Edmund, “On Forgiveness,” and Mere Christianity, in the fact that Lewis perceives forgiveness as a love based action. Lewis Smedes argues, “Love is the power behind forgiveness. Love forgives, but only because love is powerful” (143). It is through the power of love that Edmund was forgiven by his siblings, and it is through the power of love that Lewis believes Christians are to forgive one another. Lewis had a faith based on the forgiveness of sins by an all powerful and loving Father (God). “For God so LOVED the world that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (NIV John 3:16). A man absolutely free from sin (Jesus, the Savior) was Lewis’s model in what he believed and preached Christians were to aspire to in order to be living a Christ-filled life. Lewis had a true model of undeserved love and forgiveness, and like Tolkien, brought these truths to the page so that they may be recorded for others to read and learn from.
Tolkien wrote a “myth for England” set in a pre-Christian time and thus could not simply come out to his readers and make a claim that Jesus Christ the Savior commands forgiveness of others in his teachings; instead he had to convey this truth in more subtle and telling ways. Tolkien never wrote a Christian novel, preaching the Good News, but he did accomplish conveying the Christian theme of forgiveness to his audience. He allowed his characters to become real to the audience and in turn allowed the audience to relate to the actions the characters take part in. The audience was allowed to view the power of forgiveness bestowed upon those who had injured others. Lewis, on the other hand, was seeking out the average person and talking to them about his faith, and in torn Lewis was allowed to illustrate the power of forgiveness differently than Tolkien because he could be much more forthright than Tolkien. Lewis, while allowing his audience to relate to his characters, he also preaches a very Christian themed story. All of his books from Out of the Silent Planet to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe have very obvious Christian undertones to the tales. Tolkien and Lewis portrayed the theme of forgiveness in different ways, as determined by the books they were writing, and yet accomplished many of the same goals as one another. The way, in which Tolkien approaches the subjects works better for some people, while the way Lewis approaches it works better for others. Both of these authors truly accomplished what they set out to do -- portraying the power and necessity forgiveness has in the lives of oneself and of others, they just took different roads getting there.
Adams, Allen. The Weight of Glory and Other Essays. 16 March 2003.
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Lewis, C.S. God in the Dock. “Dangers of National Repentance.” Ed. Walter Hooper. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1994. 190-195.
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