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§ 124. Luther’s Public Character, and Position in History.

In 1883 the four hundredth anniversary of Luther’s birth was celebrated with enthusiasm throughout Protestant Christendom by innumerable addresses and sermons setting forth his various merits as a man and a German, as a husband and father, as a preacher, catechist, and hymnist, as a Bible translator and expositor, as a reformer and founder of a church, as a champion of the sacred rights of conscience, and originator of a mighty movement of religious and civil liberty which spread over Europe and across the Atlantic to the shores of the Pacific. The story of his life was repeated in learned and popular biographies, in different tongues, and enacted on the stage in the principal cities of Germany.985985    See the Lit. on p. 104. The martyr-Emperor, Frederick III., as crown prince, representing his venerable father, Emperor William I. of Germany, was the leading figure in the celebration at Wittenberg, Sept. 12-14, 1883, and gave it a national significance. The Luther-celebration produced several Luther-dramas, by Henzen (1883), Devrient (7th ed. 1888), Herrig (9th ed. 1888), and Trümpelmann (2nd ed. 1888). Comp. G. A. Erdmann, Die Lutherfestspiele, Wittenberg, 1889. Not only Lutherans, but Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, united in these tributes to the Reformer. The Academy of Music in New York could not hold the thousands who crowded the building to attend the Luther-celebration arranged by the Evangelical Alliance in behalf of the leading Protestant denominations of America.986986    The meeting of the Evangelical Alliance of the U. S., then under the management of Drs. Prime and Schaff (Presbyterians), was the most representative and impressive Luther celebration in America; it was addressed by Hon. John Jay (Episcopalian), Dr. Phillips Brooks (Episcopalian), Dr. Wm. M. Taylor (Congregationalist), Bishop Simpson (Methodist), Dr. Krotel (Lutheran), Dr. Crosby (Presbyterian). The music was furnished by the New York Oratorio Society. The Evangelical Alliance issued also an invitation to the Protestant churches in the United States to celebrate Luther’s birthday by sermons on the Reformation.

Such testimony has never been borne to a mortal man. The Zwingli-celebration of the year 1884 had a similar character, and extended over many countries in both hemispheres, but would probably not have been thought of without the preceding Luther-celebration.

And indeed Luther has exerted, and still exerts, a spiritual power inferior only to that of the sacred writers. St. Angustin’s influence extends wider, embracing the Roman Catholic church as well as the Protestant; but he never reached the heart of the common people. Luther is the only one among the Reformers whose name was adopted, though against his protest, as the designation and watchword by the church which he founded. He gave to his people, in their own vernacular, what no man did before or since, three fundamental books of religion,—the Bible, a hymn-book, and a catechism. He forced even his German enemies to imitate his language in poetry and prose. So strong is the hold which his Bible version has upon the church of his name, that it is next to impossible to change and adapt it to modern learning and taste, although he himself kept revising and improving it as long as he lived.987987    The Probebibel, so-called, of 1883, though prepared by a company of able scholars appointed by various German States, is a timidly conservative revision, does not touch the Erasmian text, and allows innumerable inaccuracies to stand from respect to Luther’s memory; and yet even this revision revises too much for the Lutherans of strict orthodoxy. His popularity is a hinderance to progress.

Luther was the German of the Germans, and the most vigorous type of the faults as well as the virtues of his nation.988988    See H. v. Treitschke’s eloquent address, Luther und die deutsche Nation, Berlin, 1883 (29 pages). He is the apostle of Protestant Germany, fully as much as Boniface is the apostle of Roman Catholic Germany, and surpasses him vastly in genius and learning. Boniface, though an Anglo-Saxon by birth, was more a Roman than a German; while in Luther the Christian and the German were one, and joined in opposition to papal Rome. All schools of Lutheran divines appeal to his authority: the extreme orthodox, who out-Luther Luther in devotion to the letter; the moderate or middle party, who adhere only to the substance of his teaching; and the rationalists, who reject his creed, but regard him as the standard-bearer of the freedom of private judgment and dissent from all authority.989989    Professor Ad. Harnack (Martin Luther, Giessen, 1883, p. 4) well says: Fast jede Partei unter uns hat ihren Luther und meint den wahren zu haben. Die Verehrung für Luther vereinigt mehr als die Hälfte unserer Nation und die Auffassung Luther’s trennt sie. Von Luther’s Namen lässt so leicht kein Deutscher. Ein unvergleichlicher Mann ist er Allen, ob man ihm nun aufpasst, um ihn anzugreifen, oder ob man ihn rühmt und hoch preist." The Germans, if we may say so, worship Luther, Frederick the Great, Goethe, and Bismarck. Of these, Luther is most worthy, and was least desirous, of praise.

His real strength lies in his German writings, which created the modern High-German book-language, and went right to the heart of the people. His greatest production is a translation,—the German Bible. Italians, Spaniards, and Frenchmen, who knew him only from his Latin books, received a very feeble idea of his power, and could not understand the secret of his influence.990990    Hallam also, ignoring Luther’s German writings, calls his polemical books "bellowing in bad Latin," " scandalous," and " disgusting." (Literature of Europe in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, II. 306, N. Y. ed.) The contemptuous judgments of Pope Leo, Cardinal Cajetan, Aleander, and Emperor Charles, echo the sentiments of their nations, and re-appear again and again among modern writers of the Latin races and the Romish faith.

Nevertheless, Martin Luther’s influence extends far beyond the limits of his native land. He belongs to the church and the world.

Luther has written his own biography, as well as the early history of the German Reformation, in his numerous letters, without a thought of their publication. He lays himself open before the world without reservation. He was the frankest and most outspoken of men, and swayed by the impulse of the moment, without regard to logical consistency or fear of consequences. His faults as well as his virtues lay on the surface of his German works. He infused into them his intense personality to a degree which hardly finds a parallel except in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul.

He knew himself very well. A high sense of his calling and a deep sense of personal unworthiness are inseparably combined in his self-estimate. He was conscious of his prophetic and apostolic mission in republishing the primitive gospel for the German people; and yet he wrote to his wife not to be concerned about him, for God could make a dozen Luthers at any time. In his last will and testament (Jan. 6, 1542) he calls himself "a man well known in heaven, on earth, and in hell," but also "a poor, miserable, unworthy sinner," to whom "God, the Father of all mercies, has intrusted the gospel of His dear Son, and made him a teacher of His truth in spite of the Pope, the Emperor, and the Devil." He signs himself, in that characteristic document, "God’s notary and witness in His gospel." One of his last words was, "We are beggars." And in the preface of the first collected edition of his works, he expresses a wish that they might all perish, and God’s Word alone be read.

Luther was a genuine man of the people, rooted and grounded in rustic soil, but looking boldly and trustingly to heaven with the everlasting gospel in his hand. He was a plebeian, without a drop of patrician blood, and never ashamed of his lowly origin. But what king or emperor or pope of his age could compare with him in intellectual and moral force? He was endowed with an overwhelming genius and indomitable energy, with fiery temper and strong passions, with irresistible eloquence, native wit, and harmless humor, absolutely honest and disinterested, strong in faith, fervent in prayer, and wholly devoted to Christ and His gospel. Many of his wise, quaint, and witty sayings have passed into popular proverbs; and no German writer is more frequently named and quoted than Luther.

Like all great men, he harbored in his mind colossal contrasts, and burst through the trammels of logic. He was a giant in public, and a child in his family; the boldest reformer, yet a conservative churchman; the eulogist of reason as the handmaid of religion, and the abuser of reason as the mistress of the Devil; the champion of the freedom of the spirit, and yet a slave of the letter; an intense hater of popery to the last, and yet an admirer of the Catholic Church, and himself a pope within his own church.991991    Comp. the admirable description of Luther by Hase in his Kirchengesch. (11th ed., p. 400), and at the close of his Prot. Polemik. The Roman Catholic Möhler (Kirchengesch., III. 148) thinks that out of Luther’s writings might be drawn "the most glorious apology of the Catholic Church." Harnack (l.c., p. 5) calls him "a sage without prudence; a statesman without politics; an artist without art; a man free from the world, in the midst of the world; of vigorous sensuality, yet pure; obstinately unjust (rechthaberisch ungerecht), yet concerned for the cause; defying authority, yet bound by authority; at once blaspheming and emancipating, reason."

Yet there was a unity in this apparent contradiction. He was a seeker of the righteousness of works and peace of conscience as a Catholic monk, and he was a finder of the righteousness of faith as an evangelical reformer; just as the idea and pursuit of righteousness is the connecting link between the Jewish Saul and the Christian Paul. It was the same engine, but reversed. In separating from papal catholicism, Luther remained attached to Christian catholicism; and his churchly instincts were never suppressed, but only suspended to re-assert themselves with new and greater force after the revolutionary excesses of the Reformation.

His history naturally divides itself into three periods: the Roman-Catholic and monastic period, till 1517; the Protestant and progressive period, till 1525; the churchly, conservative, and reactionary period, till 1546. But he never gave up his devotion to the free gospel, and his hatred of the Pope as the veritable Antichrist.992992    An interesting parallel in this and other respects may be drawn by some future historian, between Luther and Bismarck, whose political influence upon Germany in the nineteenth century is as powerful as Luther’s ecclesiastical influence was in the sixteenth. Bismarck was originally an intense aristocrat, but became the boldest liberal, and ended as a conservative statesman, though without surrendering the creations of his genius. He defeated Catholic Austria and France, and protested that he would never go to Canossa; yet he met Pope Leo XIII. half way, and repealed the unjust May-laws in the interest of patriotism, without surrendering any religious principle. With all his faults, he is the greatest statesman and diplomatist of the century, and the chief founder of the Protestant German Empire.

Luther’s greatness is not that of a polished work of art, but of an Alpine mountain with towering peaks, rough granite blocks, bracing air, fresh fountains, and green meadows. His polemical books rush along like thunderstorms or turbid mountain torrents. He knew his violent temper, but never took the trouble to restrain it; and his last books against the Papists, the Zwinglians, and the Jews, are his worst, and exceed any thing that is known in the history of theological polemics. In his little tract against the Romish Duke Henry of Brunswick,993993    He calls him Hanswurst, Jack Sausage. the word Devil occurs no less than a hundred and forty-six times.994994    So says Döllinger (Die Reform., III. 265, note), who counted the number. He adds, that in Luther’s book on the Councils, the devils are mentioned fifteen times in four lines. At last he could not pray without cursing, as he confessed himself.995995    See the passages above, p. 657 sq., note 3. He calls his mastery of the vocabulary of abuse his rhetoric. "Do not think," he wrote to Spalatin, "that the gospel can he advanced without tumult, trouble, and uproar. You cannot make a pen of a sword. The Word of God is a sword; it is war, overthrow, trouble, destruction, poison; it meets the children of Ephraim, as Amos says, like a bear on the road, or like a lioness in the wood."996996    Comp. the comparison between Luther and Melanchthon, p. 193 sq. We may admit that the club and sledge-hammer of this Protestant Hercules were necessary for the semi-barbarous Germans of his day. Providence used his violent temper as an instrument for the destruction of the greatest spiritual tyranny which the world ever saw. Yet his best friends were shocked and grieved at his rude personalities, and condemnatory judgments of such men as Erasmus, Zwingli, and Oecolampadius, not to speak of his Romish adversaries. Nothing shows more clearly the great distance which separates him from the apostles and evangelists.

But, with all his faults, he is the greatest man that Germany produced, and one of the very greatest in history. Melanchthon, who knew him best, and suffered most from his imperious temper, called him the Elijah of Protestantism, and compared him to the Apostle Paul.997997    He announced the death of Luther to his students with the words: "Ah! obiit auriga et currus Israel, qui rexit ecclesiam in hac ultima senecta mundi. ... Amemus igitur hujus viri memoriam." And indeed, in his religious experience and theological standpoint, he strongly resembles the Apostle of the Gentiles,—though at a considerable distance,—more strongly than any schoolman or father. He roused by his trumpet voice the church from her slumber; he broke the yoke of papal tyranny; he reconquered Christian freedom; he re-opened the fountain of God’s holy Word to all the people, and directed the Christians to Christ, their only Master.

This is his crowning merit and his enduring monument.

Augustin, Luther, Calvin.

The men who, next to the Apostles, have exerted and still exert through their writings the greatest influence in the Christian Church, as leaders of theological thought, are St. Augustin, Martin Luther, and John Calvin: all pupils of Paul, inspired by his doctrines of sin and grace, filled with the idea that God alone is great, equally eminent for purity of character, abundance in labors, and whole-souled consecration to the service of Christ, their common Lord and Saviour; and yet as different from each other as an African, a German, and a Frenchman can be. Next to them I would place an Englishman, John Wesley, who, as to abundance of useful labor in winning souls to Christ, is the most apostolic man that Great Britain has produced.

Augustin commands the respect and gratitude of the Catholic as well as the Protestant world. He is, among the three the profoundest in thought, and the sweetest in spirit; free from bitterness and coarseness, even in his severest polemics; yet advocating a system of exclusiveness which justifies coercion and persecution of heretics and schismatics. He identified the visible catholic church of his day with the kingdom of God on earth, and furnished the program of mediaeval Catholicism, though he has little to say about the papacy, and protested, in the Pelagian controversy, against the position of one Pope, while he accepted the decision of another. All three were fighters, but against different foes and with different weapons. Augustin contended for the catholic church against heretical sects, and for authority against false freedom; Luther and Calvin fought for evangelical dissent from the overwhelming power of Rome, and for rational freedom against tyrannical authority. Luther was the fiercest and roughest fighter of the three; but he alone had the Teutonic gift of humor which is always associated with a kindly nature, and extracts the sting out of his irony and sarcasm. His bark was far worse than his bite. He advised to drown the Pope and his cardinals in the Tiber; and yet he would have helped to save their lives after the destruction of their office. He wrote a letter of comfort to Tetzel on his death-bed, and protested against the burning of heretics.

Luther and Calvin learned much from Augustin, and esteemed him higher than any human teacher since the Apostles; but they had a different mission, and assumed a polemic attitude towards the traditional church. Augustin struggled from the Manichaean heresy into catholic orthodoxy, from the freedom of error into the authority of truth; the Reformers came out of the corruptions and tyranny of the papacy into the freedom of the gospel. Augustin put the church above the Word, and established the principle of catholic tradition; the Reformers put the Word above the church, and secured a progressive understanding of the Scriptures by the right of free investigation.

Luther and Calvin are confined in their influence to Protestantism, and can never be appreciated by the Roman Church; yet, by the law of re-action, they forced the papacy into a moral reform, which enabled it to recover its strength, and to enter upon a new career of conquest. Romanism has far more vitality and strength in Protestant than in papal countries, and owes a great debt of gratitude to the Reformation.

Of the two Reformers, Luther is the more original, forcible, genial, and popular; Calvin, the more theological, logical, and systematic, besides being an organizer and disciplinarian. Luther controls the Protestant churches of Germany and Scandinavia; Calvin’s genius shaped the confessions and constitutions of the Reformed churches in Switzerland, France, Holland, and Great Britain; he had a marked influence upon the development of civil liberty, and is still the chief molder of theological opinion in the Presbyterian and Congregational churches of Scotland and North America. Luther inspires by his genius, and attracts by his personality; Calvin commands admiration by his intellect and the force of moral self-government, which is the secret of true freedom in church and state.

Great and enduring are the merits of the three; but neither Augustin, nor Luther, nor Calvin has spoken the last word in Christendom. The best is yet to come.


Remarkable Judgments on Luther.

Luther, like other great men, has been the subject of extravagant praise and equally extravagant censure.

We select a few impartial and weighty testimonies from four distinguished writers of very different character and position,—an Anglican divine, two secular poets, and a Catholic historian.

I. Archdeacon Charles Julius Hare (1795–1855) has written the best work in the English language in vindication of Luther. It appeared first as a note of 222 pages in the second volume of his The Mission of the Comforter, 1846 (3d ed. 1876), and afterwards as a separate book shortly before his death, 2d ed. 1855.

Luther has been assailed by English writers on literary, theological, and moral grounds: 1, for violence and coarseness in polemics (by Henry Hallam, the historian); 2, for unsoundness in the doctrine of justification, and disregard of church authority (by the Oxford Tractarians and Anglo-Catholics); 3, for lax views on monogamy in conniving at the bigamy of Philip of Hesse (by the same, and by Sir William Hamilton).

These charges are discussed, refuted, or reduced to a minimum, by Hare (who had the largest Luther library and the fullest Luther knowledge in England), with ample learning, marked ability, and in the best Christian spirit. He concludes his vindication with these words: —

"To some readers it may seem that I have spoken with exaggerated admiration of Luther. No man ever lived whose whole heart and soul and life have been laid bare as his have been to the eyes of mankind. Open as the sky, bold and fearless as the storm, he gave utterance to all his feelings, all his thoughts. He knew nothing of reserve; and the impression he produced on his hearers and friends was such, that they were anxious to treasure up every word that dropped from his pen or from his lips. No man, therefore, has ever been exposed to so severe a trial; perhaps no man was ever placed in such difficult circumstances, or assailed by such manifold temptations. And how has he come out of the trial? Through the power of faith, under the guardian care of his Heavenly Master, he was enabled to stand through life; and still he stands, and will continue to stand, firmly rooted in the love of all who really know him."

II. Goethe, the greatest poet and literary genius of Germany, when he was eighty-two years of age, March 11, 1832 (a few days before his death), paid this tribute to Luther and the Reformation, as reported by Eckermann, in the third or supplemental volume of the Conversations of that extraordinary man: —

"We scarcely know what we owe to Luther, and the Reformation In general. We are freed from the fetters of spiritual narrow-mindedness; we have, in consequence of our increasing culture, become capable of turning back to the fountain-head, and of comprehending Christianity in its purity. We have again the courage to stand with firm feet upon God’s earth, and to feel ourselves in our divinely endowed human nature. Let mental culture go on advancing, let the natural sciences go on gaining in depth and breadth, and the human mind expand as it may, it will never go beyond the elevation and moral culture of Christianity, as it glistens and shines forth in the Gospels.

"But the better we Protestants advance in our noble development, so much the more rapidly will the Catholics follow us. As soon as they feel themselves caught up by the ever-extending enlightenment of the time, they must go on, do what they will, till at last the point is reached where all is but one."

III. Heinrich Heine, of Jewish descent, poet, critic, and humorist, the Franco-German Voltaire, who, like Voltaire, ridiculed with irreverent audacity the most sacred things, and yet, unlike him, could pass from smiles to tears, and appreciate the grandeur of Moses and the beauty of the Bible, pays this striking tribute to the Reformer: —

"Luther was not only the greatest, but also the most German man of our history; and in his character all the virtues and vices of the Germans are united in the grandest manner. He had also attributes which are rarely found together, and are usually regarded as hostile contradictions. He was at once a dreamy mystic, and a practical man of action. His thoughts had not only wings, but also hands; he spoke and he acted. He was not only the tongue, but also the sword of his age. He was both a cold scholastic stickler for words, and an inspired, divinely intoxicated prophet. After working his mind weary with his dogmatic distinctions during the day, he took his flute in the evening, looked up to the stars, and melted into melody and devotion. The same man who would scold like a fishwoman could also be as soft as a tender virgin. He was at times wild as the storm which uproots the oaks, and again as gentle as the zephyr which kisses the violets. He was full of the most awful fear of God, full of consecration to the Holy Spirit; he would be all absorbed in pure spirituality, and yet he knew very well the glories of the earth, and appreciated them, and from his mouth blossomed the famous motto: Who does not love wine, wife, and song, remains a fool his whole life long."998998    This is a mistake; see p. 466 sq. He was a complete man,—I might say, an absolute man,—in whom spirit and matter are not separated ....

"Honor to Luther! Eternal honor to the dear man, to whom we owe the recovery of our dearest rights, and by whose benefit we live to-day! It becomes us little to complain about the narrowness of his views. The dwarf who stands on the shoulders of the giant can indeed see farther than the giant himself, especially if he puts on spectacles; but for that lofty point of intuition we want the lofty feeling, the giant heart, which we cannot make our own. It becomes us still less to pass a harsh judgment upon his failings: these failings have been of more use to us than the virtues of a thousand others. The polish of Erasmus, the gentleness of Melanchthon, would never have brought us so far as the divine brutality of Brother Martin. From the imperial Diet, where Luther denied the authority of the Pope, and openly declared ’that his doctrine must be refuted by the authority of the Bible, or by the arguments of reason,’ new age has begun in Germany. The chain wherewith the holy Boniface bound the German church to Rome has been hewn asunder .... Through Luther we attained the greatest freedom of thought; but this Martin Luther gave us not only liberty to move, but also the means of moving, for to the spirit he gave also a body. He created the word for the thought,—he created the German language. He did this by his translation of the Bible. The Divine author of this book himself chose him his translator, and gave him the marvellous power to translate from a dead language which was already buried into another language which did not yet live. How Luther came to the language into which he translated the Bible I cannot conceive to this day .... This old book is a perennial fountain for the renewal of the German language."—Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland, 2nd ed. 1852, in Heine’s Sämmtl. Werke, vol. III. 29 sqq.

IV. J. Döllinger, the most learned Catholic historian of the nineteenth century, in his Lectures on the Reunion of Christendom (Ueber die Wiedervereinigung der christlichen Kirchen, Nördlingen, 1888, p. 53), makes the following incidental remark on Luther and the Reformation: —

"The force and strength of the Reformation was only in part due to the personality of the man who was its author and spokesman in Germany. It was indeed Luther’s overpowering mental greatness and wonderful manysidedness (überwältigende Geistesgrösse und wunderbare Vielseitigkeit) that made him the man of his age and his people. Nor was there ever a German who had such an intuitive knowledge of his countrymen, and was again so completely possessed, not to say absorbed, by the national sentiment, as the Augustinian monk of Wittenberg. The mind and spirit of the Germans was in his hand as the lyre is in the hand of a skillful musician. He had given them more than any man in Christian days ever gave his people,—language, Bible, church hymn. All his opponents could offer in place of it, and all the reply they could make to him, was insipid, colorless, and feeble, by the side of his transporting eloquence. They stammered, he spoke. He alone has impressed the indelible stamp of his mind on the German language and the German intellect; and even those among us who hold him in religious detestation, as the great heresiarch and seducer of the nation, are constrained, in spite of themselves, to speak with his words and think with his thoughts.

"And yet still more powerful than this Titan of the world of mind was the yearning of the German people for deliverance from the bonds of a corrupted church system. Had no Luther arisen, a reformation would still have come, and Germany would not have remained Catholic."

Dr. Döllinger delivered the lectures from which this extract is taken, after his quarrel with Vatican Romanism, in the museum at Munich, February, 1872. They were stenographically reported in the "Köllner-Zeitung," translated into English by Oxenham (London, 1872), and from English into French by Madame Hyacinthe-Loyson (La réunion des églises, Paris, 1880), and at last published by the author (1888).

This testimony is of special importance, owing to the acknowledged learning and ability of Döllinger as a Roman Catholic historian, and author of an elaborate work against the Reformation (1848, 3 vols.), consisting mostly of contemporaneous testimonies. He is thoroughly at home in the writings of the Reformers, and prepared a biographical sketch of Luther,999999    Luther, eine Skizze, Freiburg-i.-B., 1851. I have a copy with notes, which the old Catholic Bishop Reinkens, a pupil of Döllinger, kindly gave me in Bonn, 1886. It appeared in the first edition of Wetzer and Welte’s Kirchen-Lexikon, vol. VI. 651 spp. in which he severely criticises him for his opinions and conduct towards the Catholic Church, but does full justice to his intellectual greatness. He says, p. 51, "If we justly call him a great man, who, endowed with mighty powers and gifts, accomplishes great things, who, as a bold legislator in the realm of mind, makes millions subservient to his system, then the peasant’s son of Möhra must be counted among the great, yea, the greatest men. This also is true, that he was a sympathizing friend, free of avarice and love of money, and ready to help others."

Döllinger was excommunicated for his opposition to the Vatican decree of infallibility (1870), but still remains a Catholic, and could not become a Protestant without retracting his work on the Reformation. He would, however, write a very different work now, and present the Reformation as a blessing rather than a calamity to Germany, in the light of the events which have passed since 1870. In one of his Akademische Vorträge, the first volume of which has just reached me (Nördlingen, 1888, p. 76), he makes the significant confession, that for many years the events In Germany from 1517 to 1552 were to him an unsolved riddle, and an object of sorrow and grief, seeing then only the result of division of the church and the nation into hostile camps; but that a closer study of the mediaeval history of Rome and Germany, and the events of the last years, have given him a better understanding and more hopeful view of the renewed and reunited German nation as a noble instrument in the hands of Providence. This is as far as he can go from his standpoint.

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