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What is truth? – Part 4

Religious truth cannot be based on human opinions and ideas. God must reveal it, for he is not subject to human limitations.

Arthur A. Eggert

While mathematical truth from deductive reasoning and scientific truth from inductive reasoning have value in this world, the most important truth for humanity is religious truth. Moreover, if people are not to grope around blindly in philosophical reasoning hoping to find some sort of firm foundation, then there must be some source of religious truth and some standard by which to judge religious ideas. In other words, religious truth must be revealed to us because we cannot rise up to God (Romans 10:5-11).

Throughout history people have relied either upon some guru who claims insight of the divine (e.g., the pope or oracle at Delphi) or upon some book of revelation (e.g., the Bible or the Qur’an) that claims to be God’s Word. Of all the religious sources, only the Bible presents a God who freely delivers people from their sins and promises eternal salvation. All the rest make salvation dependent on some course of action in which people must earn or contribute to their salvation through their own efforts.

With such a great offer, one would think that biblical Christianity would attract nearly everyone, but just the opposite is the case. The reason is that people inherently want to take some of their own good deeds to the judgment throne of God when they are summoned to appear before him. They do not want free salvation because it means they must repudiate not only all their sins but also everything they view as their own meritorious works (Luther’s Works, Vol. 79, p. 196). They are unwilling to accept the biblical declaration that they are totally depraved and have no works acceptable before the Lord (John 15:5). They seek a “rationalized truth” that is less clear-cut, one that leaves room for negotiation over issues of behavior and piety. Biblical truth becomes distorted when people try to mix “rationalized truth” into it.

Scripture interprets Scripture

As Lutheran Christians, we follow Luther’s directive to test every teaching to see if it matches what the Scriptures actually say. We know that some parts of Scripture are difficult to understand, so we employ three simple principles:

1. The words of the Bible are to be interpreted in their simplest grammatical sense unless a clear indication in the text tells us that the words are meant in a figurative or symbolic sense.

2. If a passage is unclear we look for another passage that speaks of the same thing and gives more clarity or detail.

3. If a passage is difficult to understand in spite of parallel passages, we must not invent an interpretation but conclude that the passage is difficult to understand.

Even using these principles does not remove the desire to “rationalize” the words of Scripture. There are many examples of scholars and simple everyday Christians rationalizing God’s Word because something doesn’t make sense to them. Here’s an example that will help illustrate the challenge. The first chapter of Genesis reveals God’s creation in six days. That conflicts with what many believe about the origin of the universe. To “fix” the problem, some rationalize that those six days must be symbolic or an ancient myth in order to harmonize God’s activity with what they think actually happened. But the Bible contains no clue that the account in Genesis is symbolic or mythological. Biblical Christians simply accept the Genesis account as it is without “rationalizing the truth.”

Another example is the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus tells his disciples, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” But that doesn’t make logical sense. John Calvin was a brilliant Christian scholar, yet he adopted the nonbiblical idea that, in some cases, God would not expect us to believe what was against reason. He, therefore, sometimes used reason to filter some of the biblical teachings. He argued that Jesus’ human nature could only be present at one place like everyone else’s human nature. Consequently, he taught that Jesus is currently at one place in heaven and therefore cannot be really present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. But the words of Jesus say something clear and different, even though it’s difficult to comprehend. Like Luther we simply let God’s Word stand and conclude the God is wiser and more powerful than we are and that he can do what he says.

Scripture alone

From the earliest days of the Reformation, Martin Luther recognized the inerrancy of the Bible and the importance of understanding it correctly because he knew that there can be no religious truth apart from the Lord’s revelation. Sola Scriptura (from the Scriptures alone) became one of the pillars of the Reformation. Those who claim Luther did not regard the Bible as inerrant have not read enough of his writings. In more recent times we have used the phrase the “narrow Lutheran middle” to indicate that we may teach no more and no less than what is revealed in the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:18,19).

Another pervasive error that corrupts the principle of sola Scriptura is the teaching that religious truth develops as time passes. In this philosophical view, God gradually becomes wiser in his dealings with mankind; therefore, some of the things in the Bible should no longer be accepted as true. They were the products of the Lord himself being ignorant of the truth or of his shaping it for the benefit of more primitive peoples. Therefore, some of the things in the Bible must be changed to adapt with contemporary culture and thinking. This ignores the biblical teaching that God is not a creature of time and therefore never changes (Psalm 102; Malachi 3:6).

We end where we started, with the question: “What is truth?” Truth, regardless of its type, is information that conforms to a given standard. For example, the truth about the length of an object is determined by using a ruler as the standard. To decide whether we are willing to accept something as true, we must first know the standard according to which it is to be measured, and then we must do the measuring. In philosophy, the standard of truth is weak, namely the rationalism of the philosopher’s thinking process. In mathematics and formal logic, it is strong, namely the definitions of the domains of study and of the properties of relevant operators. In science, the standard of truth is the assumption that all observations can be explained in the terms of the natural properties of matter, energy, space, and time through the application of the scientific method.

For the Christian, the source and standard of all religious truth is the Bible, as the Lord revealed it in the original Hebrew and Greek. If we try to use our reason to judge it, then we no longer have God’s truth and have fallen back into philosophy. We can lose our eternal salvation if we try to shape our relationship with God with ideas from our sinful hearts, from our clever minds, or from the minds of other humans, rather than relying on what is revealed in his Holy Scriptures.


Dr. Arthur Eggert is a member at Peace, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.


This is the final article in a four-part series on different ways the world finds truth and where we as Christians should look for truth.


 

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Author: Arthur A. Eggert
Volume 105, Number 4
Issue: April 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
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What is truth? – Part 3

Science had helped us to expand our knowledge. But how reliable is scientific truth?

Arthur A. Eggert

Mathematics and formal logic are examples of deductive reasoning. When using deduction, we learn no new information. We are working within a well-defined box with well-understood tools. If we begin with premises that are true, then our conclusion will also be true. This is of great value for business and engineering, but it does not meet the needs of scientific investigation.

The driving motivation for scientists is to expand knowledge. Therefore, they need to reach beyond the boundaries stated in the premises of what they are studying. This involves what is called “inductive reasoning,” which goes from specific cases to a more general conclusion. For example, “It snowed in February this year, last year, and every year that I remember. Therefore, it will snow next February.” Next February, however, is not within the set of initial information, so we are drawing conclusions when we state something about it. Such generalized conclusions run the risk of not being true, even though all the premises are true. Perhaps unusual conditions will make next February without snow.

Scientific fact

Virtually all science is based on inductive reasoning. This is because scientists can usually study only a small fraction of the cases that occur in nature (e.g., all the stars in the Milky Way). Only in the rare instance when they are able to actually investigate every possible case can they say with certainty that something is true.

To understand the nature of scientific truth, one has to avoid being taken in by meaningless statements, such as “It’s a scientific fact that . . .” This statement claims that the information being put forth is absolutely true. But how do we know the “fact” is true? Establishing that it is true might take considerable time and effort. Consequently, scientists regard something as a “fact” only if its probable truthfulness is accepted by everyone discussing it. If some people reject it, it is not a “fact.” Such a “fact,” whether true or not, becomes a part of one’s set of unproved assumptions.

“Evidence,” which is the heart of scientific investigation, is obtained through making observations of the physical world. Unfortunately, collecting evidence or data can be affected by physical limitations, such as, the precision of the instrumentation or the bias

of the observer. For observations to be considered evidence, they must be made and validated based on a set of rules or standards that have been agreed upon before observations are made. For example, archeological findings are sometimes announced that “disprove the Bible,” only to have those findings later discarded once the observations are reviewed according to the accepted standards.

The goal of scientists is to create models that explain all their observations in terms of the natural properties of matter, energy, space, and time. Because the conclusions of inductive reasoning can never be absolutely certain, scientists have developed a method of determining which models are more likely to be true than others. “Scientific truth” is therefore the result of the scientific method. This method requires that observations be made; a theory (model) be formulated to explain the observations; the model be submitted for review by the scientific community (falsification challenge); and the model be modified, as necessary, based on any criticism. The process is then repeated until sufficient evidence exists for it to be generally accepted (i.e., scientifically true) or rejected. Because science does not have the absolute certainty of deductive reasoning behind it, the falsification challenge is critical to guarantee that the best analysts in the field see no reason that the theory is not true. Without this, one has only pseudoscience. Even still, scientific truth can be overturned if new evidence is found that does not fit the model.

Three kinds of science

There are basically three kinds of science. In the hard sciences like chemistry and physics, it is possible to isolate the entity being studied (e.g., oxygen atoms) from the environment, thereby eliminating interferences. Experimenters then hold constant all independent variables except the one of interest (e.g., temperature) to study a dependent variable (e.g., pressure). The experiments can be exactly duplicated by others with similar equipment, thereby removing investigator bias and providing an easy way to falsify incorrect theories or verify correct ones. Scientific models are developed using mathematical models that seem to fit the evidence. The mathematical models are reliably valid, but the scientific models they are used to underpin might not be. Mathematical models are completely under the control of mathematicians, but natural phenomena are under the control of the Lord, not scientists. In general, models in the hard sciences do not pose a challenge to a Christian’s faith.

Researchers can also do experiments in the “soft sciences” like psychology or pharmacology, but they cannot completely isolate the entity being studied, for example drug metabolism, from other factors, such as emotional stress. Experimental

environments are extremely complex because they involve living beings who respond to multiple equilibria and stimuli with various reaction speeds. Experimental results are often sensitive to the exact composition of the population (e.g., age, sex, culture, disease status) being studied. Repeating experiments can, therefore, yield significantly different results. This is why medical guidelines often change. Because it is so susceptible to variations in experimental conditions, “scientific truth” from the soft sciences is not nearly as reliable as that from the hard sciences. Challenges raised by the soft sciences to Christian beliefs include the way researchers conduct experiments on living beings, including humans; the methods they use to collect their research materials, like aborted fetuses; and their assumptions about the nature of man, for example if humans are capable of moral improvement.

Finally, in observational science like astronomy and paleontology, the investigators are limited to what they happen to encounter. They can search where they hope to find new or confirmatory information, but they cannot produce new cases to study through experimentation. For example, economists cannot start financial depressions to experiment with methods of recovering from them, and astronomers cannot create new earthlike planets to test their models. Because its models often change due to new discoveries, the reliability of observational science research is generally overstated in the media. Theories of macroscopic evolution that are inconsistent with the Bible come primarily from the observational sciences. Since there is no rigorous way to test observational science models, they will always remain relatively weak. Moreover, any effort to introduce acts of God into such models makes them completely unfalsifiable and turns them into pseudoscience.

When we are dealing with something that is claimed to be scientifically true, it is essential that we look at the type of science that is involved and ask, “Is it reproducible?” “Can it be tested by falsification?” While all scientific models are somewhat fragile and susceptible to being overturned by new discoveries, scientific truth in the hard sciences is more reliable than in the soft sciences and much more testable than in the observational sciences.

The Christian should not be troubled by “scientific truth” because it is only a human explanation of the world. The Lord is in control.


Dr. Arthur Eggert is a member at Peace, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.


This is the third article in a four-part series on different ways the world finds truth and where we as Christians should look for truth.


 

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Author: Arthur A. Eggert
Volume 105, Number 3
Issue: March 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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What is truth? – Part 2

Philosophical truth is unreliable because it comes from the corrupt human heart. But what about mathematics and logic? Are they reliable?

Arthur A. Eggert

During our lives, we have come to trust mathematics. We learned to count before we started elementary school, and soon thereafter we were taught arithmetic. We found arithmetic to be reliable because there was only one correct answer for each equation or problem. Later we learned algebra, trigonometry, and perhaps calculus. With each of these we could be certain there was a uniquely correct answer because all the terms and operators (e.g., addition, division) were precisely defined by mathematicians. This type of mathematics is called “numeric” and is an example of deductive reasoning. In such reasoning, one starts with known information, manipulates it by known rules, and obtains a reliable and unique answer.

In high school we also encountered geometry, in which much of the material was quite different from the numeric manipulation to which we were accustomed. We frequently had to prove certain statements to be true where no numbers were involved. Instead we dealt with triangles and other figures for which we needed to show some relationship was true through a series of steps, each justified by some rule that was true for geometric figures. For example, we might have been asked to prove that the base angles of isosceles triangles are equal. Geometry introduced us to a new kind of mathematics, one in which some truism about the object of interest was sought rather than a numeric value. This mathematics is called “non-numeric.” Like numeric mathematics, its results are reliable, being the same no matter who does the problem-solving. This occurs because everything used in solving non-numeric problems is precisely defined and not subject to varying interpretations by different people.

Yet, as we are all aware, mathematical answers are not always correct. Even if one pushes all the right buttons on one’s calculator, the answer will be wrong if the information one started with is wrong. If one measures a door wrong (e.g., 7 feet 10 inches tall instead of 6 feet 10 inches) or reverses two digits when recording a number (e.g., 136 instead of 163), the mathematical calculation will be valid, but the answer will be wrong. Correct application of mathematics cannot compensate for bad input.

Using formal logic

Long ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle concluded the same type of reasoning used in geometry could be used to evaluate other problems as well. He developed “syllogistic logic,” another form of deductive reasoning. This gave a way to reliably evaluate the validity of conclusions based on stated premises. Syllogistic reasoning involves a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. For centuries students have learned: Major premise: “All men are mortal.” Minor premise: “Socrates was a man.” Conclusion: “Socrates was mortal.” Because the premises in this syllogism are true, the conclusion must be true. All syllogisms have a subject (e.g., Socrates), a predicate (e.g., mortal), and a middle term (e.g., man).

Aristotle quickly realized, however, that syllogistic reasoning had its limitations. If the two premises were “Some frogs are green” and “Plants are green,” then the conclusion would be “Some frogs are plants.” Clearly, this conclusion is not true even though both of the premises are true. To determine which of the many arrangements and types of subjects, predicates, and middle terms gave valid syllogisms, Aristotle developed five rules that guided this form of logic for two thousand years. Syllogisms were the beginning of “formal logic,” which manipulates phrases with the same reliability that arithmetic manipulates numbers.

Within the last century formal logic has been expanded far beyond syllogisms to methods such as truth-functional logic and predicate calculus. In the former, informational statements are coded into a matrix called a “truth table,” which allows all possible true and false values for each statement to be combined and evaluated. In the latter, the truth or falseness of any conclusion can be determined from any set of premises by a process that is similar to the proof used for a geometric axiom. By coding premises and conclusions into a symbolic representation, the emotional component so often present in philosophical reasoning is removed. It does not matter how one feels about the merit of an argument; its validity depends only on whether the conclusion can be shown to follow logically (i.e., through rule-based manipulations) from the premises. Formal logic, therefore, always gives us valid answers just as numerical mathematics always gives us valid answers.

Identifying false premises

Just as we saw with mathematical conclusions, however, formal logic can give valid conclusions that are not true (i.e. “sound”). For example, “All orange vegetables are poisonous.” “Carrots are orange vegetables.” Therefore, “Carrots are poisonous.” This is a valid conclusion, but the conclusion is not true because the first premise is false. Despite the validity of formal logic, it can be used to lead us astray if we are duped into accepting a false premise or assuming a premise is being used that was never actually stated. For example, if a product is labeled “reduced sodium” or “reduced fat,” we tend to assume as a premise that the reduction is significant, not just 1%. Our assumption may be wrong.

A real threat to our faith occurs when people state deceptive premises about religious issues and then use valid logic to draw us into false beliefs. For example, consider this argument commonly studied in philosophy classes. Premise: “If a god exists, then he is omnipotent.” Premise: “Anyone who is omnipotent can do anything.” Conclusion: “God, therefore, can create a stone so heavy that he can’t lift it.” Contradiction: “But if god cannot lift the stone, he is not almighty. Therefore, the premise that there is a god must be false.” While this argument may sound convincing, it is the second premise, not the first, which is false. The correct premise is “If he is omnipotent, then he can do anything consistent with his will.” God’s attributes are perfectly unified and cannot conflict with each other. The existence of God does not depend on our ability to logically prove it.

Now consider a more common argument directed against hell. Premise: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Premise: “Hell is a horrible place” (Matthew 13:42). Premise: “A loving being would not send someone to a horrible place.” Conclusion: “Therefore, God will not send anyone to hell.” In this case the first premise assumes an unclear definition of love. The third premise is false also because it claims that God being love overrides his other attributes, including his justice. It also contradicts his direct statement (Matthew 25:46).

Thus, while formal logic is a major advance over philosophical reasoning in the search for truth, it suffers from two limitations. First, stating the premises and conclusions correctly and developing proofs takes significant study and effort. Many people shy away from it because of bad memories involving word problems and geometry. Second, false premises can lead to false conclusions even if the reasoning is correct. To avoid being deceived, one must be certain one’s premises are correct.


Dr. Arthur Eggert is a member at Peace, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.


This is the second article in a four-part series on different ways the world finds truth and where we as Christians should look for truth.


 

SUBMIT YOUR STORY

Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

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Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: Arthur A. Eggert
Volume 105, Number 2
Issue: February 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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What is truth? – Part 1

One way to seek truth is to think through human experience and knowledge and use our reason to find it.

Arthur A. Eggert

Pilate was not looking for a reply when he asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). He was scoffing at the idea that this lowly Galilean might actually have the correct view of the world. Pilate could consult numerous schools of philosophy about the definition of truth, and he had plenty who appeared before him who were willing to twist any situation to gain his favor. Pilate had heard it all, and he was cynical. We can deride him for his attitude, but his question still deserves an answer for our sakes, if not for his.

The search for truth

If we think about it, however, formulating a satisfactory definition of truth is not easy. A former United States Supreme Court justice said, “I can’t define pornography, but I sure know it when I see it.” Many people feel the same way about truth; they think they can recognize it when they encounter it, but its precise definition eludes them. For example, many courts require people to swear “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Unfortunately, if one does not have a reliable definition of truth, one cannot avoid being deceived by false statements that only have the appearance of truth.

We can perhaps understand the issue better if we consider a few examples. A major Russian newspaper is called Pravda, which means “truth.” Most people would not agree that everything printed in Pravda is true. In fact, it has often been used as a propaganda tool to distort the truth. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote that “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are . . .” Many Americans are willing to believe Jefferson’s words, even though his standard of truth was murky at best. Jefferson was not a Christian and believed that truth was formed directly in the human mind. Because the Bible did not meet his standard of truth, he edited it with a scissors, producing what is called the Jefferson Bible.

In searching for the truth, we engage in a process called reasoning. There are two components to reasoning: what we start with and what we get as the product of our reasoning. We call what we start with “assumptions,” “premises” or “propositions.” We

call what we end up with “conclusions” or “consequents.” In order to get truth from the reasoning process, the process must be “sound,” that is, the assumptions or premises must be true (well-grounded) and the path of argument between premises and conclusion must be free of inconsistencies (valid). But we cannot take it for granted that what is offered up as “truth” these days is either well-grounded or the result of valid reasoning.

Politicians, editorialists, humanists, religious gurus, and others whom we see and hear in the media are, in effect, philosophers, and their statements are often inaccurate abstractions or overstatements of what is known. These speakers are not so much interested in convincing us with evidence as they are hoping to strike an emotional chord that will cause us to respond in the way they desire. This is called “philosophical reasoning” because the speaker is trying to get us to accept his philosophy and, therefore, the truthfulness, even without presenting well-grounded evidence or valid reasoning.

Well-known philosophers’ versions of truth

Philosophical reasoning is particularly dangerous when applied to religious and moral matters.

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, claimed that emotions result in errors of judgment. The path to happiness for humans was, therefore, not to allow oneself to be controlled by desires for pleasure or fears of pain.

Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, taught that the happy life resulted from living in peace with one’s neighbors and avoiding fear and pain through a self-sufficient and self-indulgent life surrounded by friends.

Thomas Aquinas tried to prove the existence of God based on reason and the ordinary experiences of nature. He argued that everything that moves has a mover, so the first mover had to be God.

René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” He then argued that the existence of God could be demonstrated philosophically, an assertion that most philosophers even at his time rejected.

John Locke claimed human nature was characterized by reason and tolerance. Believing that Christianity represented the highest form of religion, he tried to ground it in reason as presented in The Reasonableness of Christianity.

Voltaire argued that God existed and created the universe, but that he does not meddle in its operation. This concept of deism became popular among the leaders of the American Revolution but led to Voltaire’s condemnation by the Roman Catholic Church.

David Hume said, “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of passions.” He rejected the idea of abstract moral principles given to man from a divine being.

Immanuel Kant argued that all our knowledge, including that of God, comes from experience, but we must be active reasoners to grasp the truth because it would not come to us in a passive manner.

Karl Marx proclaimed that religion was a form of false consciousness through which people deluded themselves into accepting less than what they deserved from society. He maintained that religion effectively drugged people.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that religion had its roots in weakness and sickness and serves as a means to keep power away from the strong and healthy. He believed that God was not the source of morality.

Uncertain vs. certain truth

While numerous other philosophers could be cited, it is clear that philosophical ideas of truth always come from within the philosophers themselves, from their hearts, which the Lord describes in Jeremiah as “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (17:9). It is therefore not surprising that the ideas of various philosophers do not agree with each other, for they are built on egocentric foundations. The Christian must reject rather than be taken in by the “cleverly devised stories” (2 Peter 1:16) that such philosophers spin.

Sadly, despite its inherent lack of soundness, philosophical reasoning is widely used in searching for the truth by most people today because it gives them a feeling of power to proclaim their own ideas of truth without having to support it with verifiable evidence.

But if all of the above searchers for truth with their use of philosophical reasoning fail to find truth, how and where should we look for truth with the certainty of finding it? The Bible uses the word truth in different ways. Consider three statements of Jesus in John’s gospel. In 8:32, the word truth is used to designate knowledge: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” In 17:17, it includes the whole revelation of God: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” In 14:6, Jesus equates himself to truth: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” We will return to the biblical concepts of truth later in this series.


Dr. Arthur Eggert is a member at Peace, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.


This is the first article in a four-part series on different ways the world finds truth and where we as Christians should look for truth.


 

SUBMIT YOUR STORY

Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

SUBSCRIBE TO FORWARD IN CHRIST

Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: Arthur A. Eggert
Volume 105, Number 1
Issue: January 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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