Reconciliation

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message

South Africa, at the moment, has become a pot reaching boiling point, as racial tensions and anger mount. For some, reconciliation has become a dirty word, and for others there is fear that the reconciliation that was built up in the last 90s is under serious threat. Globally, we see similar breakdowns in relationships and rolling often violent fracturing of relationships – among the states of the former USSR, in the Middle East, in parts of Africa. And at a domestic level, we all too often experience broken and pain-filled relationships in our communities, with our neighbours and friends, and even in our families. How is it that we humans are so good at breaking fellowship?

This 20 minute message tackles these difficult issues and questions. Starting at the beginning of Genesis, I trace this origins of broken relationships: between people, with God, with the world and with ourselves. We call this ‘sin’.

Working through the First Testament, I show the many ways in which God, who created relationships and is in the business of reconciliation, worked to restore these fractures, and to build harmony and wholeness in humanity.

And then I show how Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection are the pinnacle of God’s work to redeem us, to restore us, to reconcile us.

And finally, drawing on Paul’s teachings in 2 Corinthians 5, I show how we are called to be agents of reconciliation, to join with God in bringing about reconciliation. I suggest four main ways that we can and should do this: accepting God’s offer of reconciliation with us, praying for those who have fallen out of fellowship, transforming our hearts of racism and sexism (and all the other -isms), and taking a step towards an estranged loved-one. In so doing, we build the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 3: Sin, Love & Wrath

This is the third in the five-part series on “Being God’s Beloved”, delivered at St Martins Anglican Church in Irene, South Africa, on 26 March 2014. Today, we explore the relationship between human sin and divine love and wrath.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 19: The Incarnation

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Today marks an important transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. God’s love is continuous across both Testaments – there is no change in God’s attitude and feelings towards us. However, the New Testament heralds a new way of expressing that love! God now comes in person into humanity in the form of Jesus Christ. This is the greatest demonstration of God’s love since the creation. And it allows us to encounter God is a completely new way. God’s coming into the world – the incarnation – is a radical shift in God’s engagement with the world, and sets in motion a wonderful new experience of Being God’s Beloved.

You may recall that on Day 7, when we looked at Exodus 3, we heard God say:

  • I have seen…
  • I have heard…
  • I am concerned…
  • I have come down…

God drew near to Israel in their time of suffering in Egypt.

And now God draws near again, but in a new and profound way – God becomes human.

When we think of the incarnation, many of us think of the baby Jesus born in a manager, which we celebrate at Christmas. But in fact the incarnation took place roughly nine months before, at the conception. It must, surely, be at the conception that the incarnation took place, otherwise what we have is a human baby who is subsequently infused with God’s spirit – and that is no incarnation at all.[1]

Exactly how this works, we cannot be sure. But let us consider the possibility that in some mysterious way, by the Holy Spirit, there is a blending together of human and divine. Mary’s genetic material is spliced together with God’s to form a being who is both fully human and fully divine – two natures in one person, as the Nicene Creed says. It is at the conception that God incarnates into human form – God is woven into the very fabric of Jesus’ genetic makeup, forming a completely new entity: a God-man. This happens at a cellular level, starting with a single cell.

This is an important point, because it points to God’s new work of salvation, which starts at this conception. Let us think back to Genesis 3. Adam and Eve, created in perfection, chose to turn away from fellowship with God. We call that turning away ‘the Fall’, because in that moment something happened not only to Adam as an individual, but to the whole human race. The whole of humanity fell. Indeed, we can say that human nature fell. Something went wrong with who we are as people. As we heard Schaeffer say on Day 17, we are ‘glorious ruins’.

Paul writes about this in Romans 5:12, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” He continues to say this over the following verses (5:15-19): “…many died by the trespass of the one man… The judgement followed one sin and brought condemnation… by the trespass of one man, death reigned through that one man… the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men… through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners.”

In these verses Paul expresses the consequence of the Fall – the sin of one man, Adam – as death, judgement and condemnation. It is human nature that was damaged by the Fall, and that resulted in estrangement from God – the intimate fellowship that Adam and Eve had experienced in the Garden, was shattered and they were cast out into the world. Paul emphasises repeatedly that the action of ONE man impacted the MANY; indeed the ALL. In other words, Adam’s sin (and we should not forget Eve too) changed humanity.

Therefore, the incarnation is a tremendous start to God’s plan to unravel the knotty mess that Adam made. By God inserting Godself into human DNA, God begins to transform humanity at a genetic level. The incarnation is not merely a human being with a particularly large dose of Spirit. The incarnation points to an interweaving of human and divine, to form an integrated, indivisible, whole person. In doing this, God begins to redeem human nature. This does not mean that the incarnation brings salvation to every individual person. Rather, it means that the fabric of what it means to be human is redeemed. God opens up the path to a total transformation of our being, just as Adam’s sin led to a total transformation of our being.

Paul writes about this too in Romans 5:12-20. Throughout this passage, he contrasts Adam with Christ – two individuals, whose lives impacted not only on themselves but on the whole of humanity. Adam impacted us negatively – sin, death, judgement and condemnation – while Christ impacted us positively: “…how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! …the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification… how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. …the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. …through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (5:15-19).

In these verses, which parallel the verses about Adam, Paul expresses the consequences of Jesus’ work: grace, justification, righteousness. And just as Adam’s individual sin impacted the whole of humanity, Jesus’ individual gift impacts the whole of humanity. Yet, twice in this passage, Paul says, “how much more” – Adam impacted everyone, but Jesus impacted everyone even more – the cure is much more powerful than the disease.

Paul picks up this theme again in 1 Corinthians 15:45-49, where he explicitly contrasts Adam as “the first man Adam” and Christ as “the last Adam”. And in the same passage he writes of the “first man” and the “second man”.

Thus, the incarnation is Jesus coming into the world as a renewed and restored kind of human, infused from conception with the divine, setting in motion the redemption of humanity, of human nature, that continues through his ministry and teaching, culminating in the cross and resurrection. This whole sequence of work makes possible the salvation of humanity, and our transformation into the likeness of God.

Roman Catholic and Protestant theology (in other words, the Western Church) has tended to emphasise the cross as the heart of salvation, and this is certainly correct. But the Church Fathers and the Eastern Church (such as Russian Orthodox theology), while recognising the importance of the cross, also emphasised the importance of the incarnation as being central to God’s plan of salvation. Irenaeus, for example, writing in the second century, stressed that the “incarnation itself was redemptive, not merely a necessary step toward either Christ’s teachings or the cross event. Rather the becoming human of the Son of God – God’s eternal Word (Logos) experiencing human existence – was what redeems and restores fallen humanity if they let it. … For Irenaeus, then, the incarnation was the key to the entire history of redemption and to personal salvation. The incarnation was itself transformative… In a literal sense the entire human race is ‘born again’ in the incarnation. It receives a new ‘head’ – a new source, origin, ground of being – that is unfallen, pure and healthy, victorious and immortal. It is ‘fully alive’ – both physically and spiritually.”[2]

One of my books on salvation has a section entitled, “The incarnation: God’s basic act of forgiveness.”[3] I love this title! Think about this. Human nature had fallen into ruin through Genesis 3. Despite everything that we’ve been saying so far about God’s love, let us not forget that God is also holy and righteous, and that sin really is unpleasant for him. It may help to think of sin as something that smells really bad. A couple of days ago, my neighbour laid down fresh manure in their garden – it smelled something awful and invaded every corner of our home. Sin is something like that for God.

And yet in the incarnation God chooses to come close to humanity. God chooses to not just to come close, but to come into humanity. Yet even more than this, God becomes one with humanity! Despite our brokenness and inadequacy, despite the stink of humanity’s sin, God decides to merge God’s divine nature with our human nature. Does that not shake you to the core?

What would motivate God to do such a thing? What could be so powerful as to persuade God to pinch his nose, so to speak, and dive into the smelly world of humanity?

Just one thing: LOVE.

God’s eternal and persistent love for humanity – God’s chesed (God’s loving-kindness tied up in a covenant that God made with humanity) – is extravagant. This love is not genteel, polite, proper, tightly controlled and neatly expressed. It is wild and enthusiastic and joyful and energetic and risky and beautiful! From this heart of extravagant love, God plunges into human existence, taking on all of our ugliness and embracing us just as we are – in our human nature.

This choice – this act – is a demonstration of forgiveness. It is, as Gaybba says, “a basic act of forgiveness.” Not basic in the sense of simple; but basic in the sense of a foundation – the incarnation is the base of forgiveness. It is the first and radical step in God’s great new plan for salvation of humankind.

It is here that God begins to unravel the effects of the fall. It is here that God begins to change the fabric of our being. It is here that God bridges the sin-divide between us and God. It is here that we see God’s love in action.

Meditation for the Day

Consider what it means that God incarnated into the genetic material of humanity. Reflect on God’s demonstration of forgiveness in becoming human.

Prayer for the Day

Precious Saviour, I thank you for coming into the world, for becoming one of us, for becoming like me. Transform me, from the inside to the outside, into your likeness.

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[1] There are, of course, many different perspectives on the incarnation, held fervently by sincere and true Christians. Feel free to differ from me – I do not have exclusive access to Truth. But these are views that I hold fervently and that make sense to me in light of what I understand in the Bible, of theology and my experience of God. If nothing else, let my thoughts stimulate your own thoughts.

[2] Olson, R. E. (1999). The story of Christian theology. DownersGrove, IL: InterVarsity Press, pp. 74-75.

[3] Gaybba, B. (2005). Soteriology. Pretoria: Unisa Press, p. 40.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 17: God’s Love and God’s Standards

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

If God loves us so much, so much that God will forgive anything that we do, then we can do anything we want, right?

Actually, no.

In the early Church, this line of thinking had become popular in some circles. The rationale was that if God’s grace is what cancels sin in our lives, then the more we sin, the more we experience God’s grace. And since God’s grace is a good thing, a lot of sin must surely be good too! And so Paul writes, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? …count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus… For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:1-2, 11 & 14).

Law, of course, refers to the Old Testament patterns of sin and righteousness. In those days God had spelled out, in the Ten Commandments, clear standards for right living. Most of them are pretty obvious: don’t worship idols, don’t murder, don’t steal and so on. But of course, there are all kinds of subtle situations where something may or may not be acceptable, so over time these Ten Commandments grew into several hundred – detailed, specific and neatly defined standards for righteous living. If you kept all of these, you were okay with God. If not, you had to make amends.

These laws were hard to keep, because there were so many and they were so detailed. But if you knew them, then keeping the law was not that difficult – you just had to avoid those specific behaviours and, no matter what else you did, you were righteous. By emphasising the letter of the law, the defined behavioural standards, it was quite possible to be rotten in the heart but outwardly righteous. There were people like this.

Jesus called such men whitewashed tombs. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28).

Strong words indeed! And perhaps true of you and me. It is much easier to focus on the specifics of external behaviour, like not swearing at church or coming to church drunk, than on the heart, like not thinking greedy or angry thoughts, or forgiving someone who has hurt us.

Jesus proceeded to raise the standards even higher, by emphasising not only outward righteousness, but also inward righteousness. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement” (Matthew 5:21-22a). It is one thing – quite easy for most of us – to not murder someone. I myself have never murdered anyone! But it is quite another to not be angry with my brother or neighbour. Gosh, I’ve been angry countless times! This is an impossibly high standard!

And Jesus continues raising the bar higher and yet higher, on matters of lustful thoughts and desires, divorce, making oaths, seeking revenge and loving your enemies. This last is also a real challenge for us in daily life. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45a).

And to cap it all, Jesus calls us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Impossible! Perfection is reserved for God and God alone.

God may love us, but the expectations God has for us are frighteningly demanding. Honestly, we cannot do it.

How does this demandingness tally with God’s love for us? It does not feel very loving to set impossibly high standards that we are sure to fall short of, does it? Good teachers and loving parents don’t do that to their students and children. We know that self-esteem is crushed when we expect more than someone is capable of. Repeatedly not meeting up to expectations is more likely to result in giving up than greater reaching for the standard.

To be sure, living under grace through Christ is a most peculiar place, full of apparent contradictions. But when we can step back and see the whole picture, we realise that they are not contradictions at all, but results of God’s extravagant love for us.

God created humanity with great vision and optimism, to be the crown of creation, the most beautiful, radiant and wonderful thing to emerge from the hand of God. And indeed we once were.

But since the Fall we are not quite what we once were. The remains of the spectacular beings that we once were are still evident, but rather fallen into ruin. We are, as Francis Schaeffer has famously said, ‘glorious ruins’. Our fallenness is the gap between the God’s vision and our reality.

What we think of as God’s standards is in fact God’s vision of us. God retains a picture of us as the magnificent castle, even though we are now glorious ruins. God still desires and expects us to be everything that we were created to be. Those are certainly high standards.

Jesus’ anger at the religious leaders of his day was not because they had abandoned God’s standards. Rather, it was because they had watered down God’s vision to a handful of petty rules, which made a mockery of God’s vision. They had trivialised God’s vision, turning the glorious human into a scarecrow. And so Jesus’ raising of the standards was part of an attempt to turn us back to that glorious vision, to remind us that God made us for so much more than just following some rules. That God’s vision concerned the fabric of our being, the innermost core of our existence. He was cautioning us not to settle for the scarecrow. The raised standard was not intended to cause us to give up; rather it was to inspire us to recognise afresh the wonderful beings that we once were and will one day be again.

In the meantime, as we strive towards becoming that vision, grace is made available to us. Because no matter how much we try, we cannot quite reach God’s standards. Rather than suffering under guilt and damnation, God generously forgives and pardons, so that we can continue the journey of being transformed into the image of the Son. It is as if God smiles at us as we fall down, and says, “Never mind, precious one. You are trying. Let’s try again. Here let me help you.”

We will not reach the destination of a glorious self in this lifetime, but this is no ‘never-ending story’. This story will, for sure, end on that great and glorious Day of the Lord, when we will be restored to our former magnificence. Grace, then, is not given for us to use as an excuse for living a sinful life. Rather, it is given to help us pick ourselves up after failure and continue the upward journey.

God’s love permeates all of this, from start to end, so that we are never bereft. While God has these exceptionally high standards and desires for us to attain them, we are never forced, because love does not force. God creates freedom for us to choose whether we follow or turn away. We are never coerced. God sets before us, particularly in the person of Jesus, a model of what we could be and invites us to strive towards that. But God does not insist on it. There is freedom to choose.

God does not desire puppets or robots. If God had desired such, God could easily have created them. Instead, God desired creatures that would freely choose fellowship with God. And that meant creating us with the freedom to choose alienation from God. That freedom has created problems for us, in the form of sin and its ramifications. But freedom is important for us and the gift of freedom is an expression of God’s love. Love that is not freely given is no love at all.

Sometimes we may reflect on the demands of Christian living and feel a little tired and constrained, wishing that we could just relax and have fun. It is a bit like being on a diet – you want to lose weight and be healthy, but a slice of chocolate cake would be so yummy! When faced with such temptations, it does not help much to hold before us the image of a judge-God, wagging his finger and frowning in disapproval at us, thin lips pursed. That does not inspire us to choose the righteous path.

Rather, let us hold before us the image of our lover-God, who desires the best for us, who believes in us, who is optimistic about who we can be, who we know will love us regardless of how much we succeed or fail, who has promised to never abandon us. The alternative is not attractive – a long descending path leading into darkness. We know what is best for us – into the arms of Love.

Meditation for the Day

Where are you on the continuum of sin-righteousness? Select one area of your life that you have not adequately surrendered to God’s Spirit. Now, imagining the God of love, ask God to help you invest in working out your salvation in that area.

Prayer for the Day

Creator God, I thank you for creating me in your image and for having a wonderful vision for who I can be. Please give me the energy, discipline and passion to journey ever closer to that vision.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 14: God’s Love and Human Sin

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Sin is an important topic within the broader theme of God’s love, because sin not only gets in the way of God’s love, but can be considered the antithesis of love for God. Often, when we think about sin, we get hooked up in a litany of sins – sexual lust, lying, blaspheming, stealing, murder, rape and so on. We may also get a bit spiritual and think of sins like pride, sloth, gluttony, gossip. While these are all sins, I’d like us to approach this from a somewhat different perspective, which requires us to start at the very beginning.

On Day 3 we reflected on the heart of God. There we said that God has always been in fellowship with Godself, within the triune Godhead. Father, Son and Spirit have enjoyed perfect intimate communion since before the beginning of time. This kind of relationship – intimate, loving, mutual and egalitarian – is found in the innermost being of God. It not so much something that God does, as something that God is. God does not just engage in relationships; God is relationship.

Out of the fullness of the joy of relationship, God extends Godself beyond the boundaries of God and into relationship with someone other – humanity. This is not about a lack or deficit in God; rather it is about an overabundance of and overwhelming experience of relationship. God desires to expand this kind of fellowship to include others, so that we may know what God knows – the joy of perfect intimacy. God’s intention, then, is for divine-human relationships that mirror the divine-divine relationship – we should love and be loved by God in the same way that the Father, Son and Spirit love and are loved by each other.

On Day 4 we reflected on the idea that God created us in God’s own image. Although this image of God has, over the centuries been thought of as many different things – rationality, morality, creativity and so on – I have suggested that the image of God is best thought of as relationality. Because loving relationship is the heart of God, the image of God must involve loving relationship. And this is borne out by the fact that God created not a singular individual, but a couple, people in relationship with each other, one flesh. And we can thus conclude that we are most like God when we are in the same kind of relationship with each other as is found in the Godhead.

Sin, however, entered the world in Genesis 3, compromising God’s plans for intimate, perfect and eternal relationship with humanity. After Adam and Eve had eaten of the fruit of the Tree, “they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Genesis 3:7). Later, when God came walking in the garden, “they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8). The covering up and hiding jointly point to the crux of the fall – a separation from God. And that separation speaks not to a moral failure, but rather to a relationship failure. No longer do we see the kind of open-hearted, guileless, intimate, no-holds-barred relationship that existed before the Fall.  We became estranged from God. Since that day, humanity has spent its time covering up and hiding from God.

Sin can best be considered the fracturing of relationship, rather than a moral defect in the makeup of people or acts that violate God’s law. “Sin is not primarily a state of corruption calling for a divine manipulative cure, nor guilt to be wiped out through punishment or satisfaction, but estrangement from God requiring reconciliation”.[1] In the wake of estrangement from God comes disregard for God’s values and vision for humanity, and thus humanity rebels against God, resulting in further estrangement. We become not only estranged from God, but also unaware of our estrangement or need for reconciliation.

Because every human is created in the image of God, whether Christian, devout Muslim or atheist, any sin against any person is a sin also against God. God says as much in Genesis 6:9, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” In other words, killing another person is tantamount to killing God – God is present by the image of God in every person, thus every person is connected to God (even if they are not aware of it) and any attack against another person is an attack against God. Thus there is a strong relational quality to sin.

And in addition, because we ourselves are created in the image in the God, any sin against ourselves is also a sin against God. When I do things in private, things that do not hurt anyone else but go against what God created me to be, I am sinning against myself, and thus against the image of God in me, and thus against God. Sin is relational, but it is also personal. The notion that anything goes so long as we don’t hurt anyone else does not pan out when we consider that we ourselves bear the image of God in our innermost being.

So, sin is like a three-stranded cord, with psychological, social and spiritual aspects – it is not merely an individual problem. Psychologically, I sin against myself, harming myself. Socially, I sin against others, harming them. Spirituality, all sin against myself and sin against others is sin against God’s image and thus against God. It may help to think of the heavenly and earthly beings as a massive system or network, in which the activities of each one impact on all the others because of the shared image of God. An injury to another person or oneself or a secret blasphemy against God causes injury to other, self or God, with a resultant ripple effect through the entire system. There is no such thing as private sin.

Every sin thus grieves God. Sin is a turning away from everything that God created us to be, from God’s intention in creation and from God’s vision for us as individuals and as a race. Small wonder that God wiped the slate clean in Genesis 6.

The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth… because I am grieved that I have made them’. (Genesis 6:5-7)

The Flood is surely an act of rage, of divine wrath against humanity. Wiping out almost the entire human race should not be trivialised. And in the pulpit this wrath is often emphasised as God’s reaction to our sin; wrath, which leads to judgement and damnation.

But what is striking in these verses from Genesis 6 is the centrality of grief and pain, rather than anger. This passage, more than most, gives a unique and invaluable glimpse into the inner emotional life of God, as we are told what God felt and thought as God deliberated on the state of humanity. Grief and pain are the two emotions reported. Although God speaks of wiping humanity from the face of the earth, there is no mention of anger, and indeed the writing itself is more grief-wracked than wrathful.

Similarly, our sin elicits in God primarily a grief reaction rather than a rage reaction. When I sin, when you sin, God’s heart breaks. Anger may and sometimes does come later, but the core of God’s response to our sin is sadness, grief, disappointment.

Why? Because God has created us for so much more. God has in mind an image of what we are intended to be of what we could be if we remained in fellowship with God. And it is a glorious, wonderful image! The gap between that image and the reality is enough to break God’s heart.

Sometimes, when I sin, I want to run and hide from God’s anger towards me, and so I avoid him, which of course makes sin easier, which draws me still further away. It is a vicious circle that leads me away from fellowship, and not closer to God.

But if, rather, I think of my sin as grieving God, my motivation for avoiding sin changes. Instead of not sinning out of fear of judgement, I avoid sinning so that I do not grieve the one who I know loves me more than any other. I avoid sinning because my relationship with God is so important and vital. And when I do sin, I don’t hide out of fear, but turn back to God and share God’s grief over my own wretchedness. Grief invites reconciliation, while anger invites avoidance.

Our sin wounds God because we are intimately connected with God, whether or not we believe in God, whether or not we recognise we are connected with God. The connection is a fact that does not care about what we think about God. And that connection is an expression of God’s love for us. Our sin, then, is a violation of that love, a betrayal of God’s love.

Meditation for the Day

Give fresh thought to the topic of sin. Think about sin in your own life. Try to move beyond listing sins, to perceiving the relational aspects of sin. Bring this to God in prayer.

Prayer for the Day

Precious Saviour, forgive me for the many ways in which I break your image, which you have woven into the fabric of my being. Help me, day by day, breath by breath, to be transformed into your likeness.

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[1] Brümmer, V. (2005). Atonement, Christology and the Trinity: Making sense of Christian doctrine. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, p. 49.