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Category Articles
Date February 8, 2017

The Great Heresies – 4


The study of what historians refer to as ‘the Great Heresies’ is no mere intellectual or antiquarian exercise, but shows the main lines of error that have affected the Church over the centuries. In Gnosticism we are confronted with the lure of claimed secret knowledge, and of a matter-spirit dualism, in Modalism with a simplistic and ultimately rationalistic attempt to explain away the Trinity as one divine person playing different roles, and thus make the being of God completely comprehensible to the natural man, and in Arianism with an attempt to explain the Trinity in terms of one supreme God and a created ‘god’ through whom he does all his other works. We may say that in Gnosticism the issue is Revelation, in Modalism the reality of the distinctions of the Trinity, and in Arianism the co-equality of the Persons of the Trinity.

But it is also important to emphasise that the heretic, on the whole (Gnosticism being the great exception), does not set out to deny the truth; rather he begins with one truth, and so distorts it as to deny other truths of equal importance. So the Gnostics began with the transcendence of God, and ended by denying that God can have any direct dealings with the creation; the Modalists began with the unity of God, and ended by denying the reality of the Trinity, and Arius began with the real distinction between the Father and the Son, and ended by denying the deity of the Son. Apollinarianism began in like manner, with the great truth of the deity of Christ, and ended by denying the real humanity of the Incarnate Son.

As a result of the Arian controversy, the full deity of Christ was settled as the doctrine of the Church by 381. But at the same time, the question arose, almost as a matter of course, as to what that meant. If Jesus of Nazareth is indeed ‘God with us,’ then how is he with us? This is a mystery that is in fact beyond human comprehension, but such is the nature of man that we almost instinctively seek to pry into matters that we cannot possibly understand. The result is always false teaching, and usually heresy. Thus a number of heresies relating directly to the person of Christ arose. The first of these Christological heresies was called Apollinarianism, after its founder.


Apollinarius the younger was an intelligent and cultured man. Born in Laodicea in about 315, he was the son of a Christian teacher from Alexandria who had settled in the city. He and his father were well respected in the small orthodox community there, and in 361 he was elected their Bishop. Laodicea is of course one of the Seven Churches of the Revelation, and a Church to which Paul refers in his Epistles. Though it had an honourable history, by the fourth century it had only a small orthodox congregation, giving its bishop plenty of time to devote to other activities, such as writing and studying. This suited Apollinarius, who was a deeply learned man, trained in philosophy and literature as well as theology.

During the reign of the Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363), when Christians were forbidden by law from teaching the Classics, he and his father had worked together to render parts of the Scriptures into Classical literary forms so as to teach rhetoric and other classical studies without falling foul of the law. The Church historian J.W.C. Wand characterises him as, ‘a true Greek in the line of the great thinkers, never shrinking from the effort to tackle any intellectual problem, however involved.’ This was not always a good thing, for such efforts must always be governed by Scripture, and Apollinarius fell into the fatal error of going beyond Scripture, and wandering aside into vain and unprofitable speculations.

Like most of the heresies dealt with in this series, Apollinarianism began with a truth, that of the deity of Christ. Apollinarius appeared on the orthodox side during the Arian conflict, contending earnestly for the true and proper deity of Christ. He was also insistent that there is only one person of Christ; that is to say that the incarnation does not mean the joining of a divine person and a human person (such a concept actually destroys the idea of a true incarnation), but there is only one Christ. So far, so good; the problem arose when Apollinarius tried to explain the exact mechanics of the Incarnation. Since these are not laid out in Scripture, we must in fact take great care here, and with humility confess that we cannot know. With Hart we must say,

How it was done we can’t discuss,
But this we know, ’twas done for us.

We know the outcome of the Incarnation, what is recorded for us in Scripture, but that is all. The mechanism is beyond our understanding.

And this is where Apollinarius went astray, he tried to answer the question of ‘how it was done.’ He began with the question, ‘what is man?’ meaning this in terms of nature; what is human nature, and how does the Incarnation work in terms of that nature. The human nature is, we know, made up of both a physical and a spiritual component, but there has been, and remains to this day, a debate as to whether human nature is made up of two parts or three; the so-called Trichotomist debate. Apollinarius seems originally have held to a Dichotomist position, that man consists of body and soul. In his eagerness to explain the Incarnation, while emphasising the unity and true deity of the person of Christ, Apollinarius fell into the trap of denying the full humanity of Christ, for he taught that the Divine nature took the place of an element of the human nature. In his earlier writings he spoke of the ‘enfleshed Divinity’, and by it meant that the human soul was, in Jesus, replaced by the Divine person. Later on, probably in an effort to answer his critics, Apollinarius moved to the Trichotomist position, that human nature consists of three parts, the body, the soul, and the spirit, and that in the Incarnation the Divine nature took the place of the human spirit, conceived of as the highest part of man’s nature.

Apollinarius began to teach his peculiar heresy in about 352, before he was elected bishop, but it was only ten years later that it came to the attention of Athanasius. The Arian controversy was after all the great conflict of the time, and it took priority in the minds of everyone. Nevertheless, when one within the Nicene camp began to teach heresy on a different matter, the orthodox had to come together to deal with what might otherwise have been a serious threat from within.

That Apollinarius was, in spite of the fact that he had been teaching heresy for the best part of a decade at least, elected Bishop of Laodicea in 361 should not surprise us. He was local, well-known and popular, and a good communicator. He said a lot about the deity of Christ, and opposed the great heretical challenge to the Church at the time, Arianism. But he was himself as great a danger to the Church as Arius, perhaps more of a danger in that his heresy was more subtle.

It was perhaps his election to the bishopric of Laodicea that brought his false teaching to the attention of the wider Church. Athanasius, the leader of the Orthodox party, saw clearly that however much Apollinarius seemed to be an ally against the Arians, it was in fact critical that he be opposed, otherwise an equally precious doctrine would be endangered. So in 362 he called a local council at Alexandria, where a number of doctrinal issues were discussed, among them the error of Apollinarius, which was roundly condemned. This, however, did not deter Apollinarius, who at this point revealed himself to be completely unwilling to receive correction. By 373 there was a defined Apollinarian party gathering around the Bishop of Laodicea, and battle lines were drawn.

It is notable that among the classic theological works of Athanasius is a noted treatise On the Incarnation of the Word; he understood that the Incarnation matters, and unlike Apollinarius and those who followed him, would not give it up or compromise its reality even in the interests of an apologetic against the Arians. Nevertheless, it was not Athanasius who took up his pen against Apollinarius, but his Cappadocian allies.

The Cappadocians

Athanasius’ primary concern was, understandably, Arianism, which had originated closer to home, and was therefore the greater issue in Alexandria. The reply to Apollinarius was therefore left largely to the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Basil (330-379) and Gregory (329-390) were probably the greatest Eastern theologians of the era; they were also personal friends. They had studied together at the University of Athens, and so were every bit as well-educated as Apollinarius, if not more so, since as far as we know, Apollinarius did not study at a university. But more important than this, they did not set the same store in philosophy that Apollinarius did. Both men understood that the Christian theologian is not an innovator, a man who comes up with new and hitherto unknown ideas, nor one who pries into the mysteries of God, but a humble disciple in Christ’s school. Both men also saw themselves as servants of the Church. Basil and Gregory were even more active against Arius than Apollinarius, so that no accusation of that sort could reasonably be made against them.

There were, the Cappadocians argued, two great issues at stake in the controversy, Divine Impassibility, and the reality of Redemption. Basil emphasised the point of Divine Impassibility, that the Divine nature itself cannot be made to suffer. Yet if in the Incarnation the Divine Word took the place of the human soul of Christ, it followed unavoidably that the Divine Word as such suffered. Gregory, on the other hand, emphasised Redemption, coining the phrase, ‘What is not assumed cannot be redeemed.’ There was the great difference; Apollinarius was first and foremost a philosopher, considering the philosophical question of how God can become man. On the other hand, Gregory was, as he is remembered by posterity, a theologian, whose great concern was how the Incarnation saves sinful man.

Gregory insisted on his great point, ‘What is not assumed is not healed.’ Christ Jesus came into the world, he pointed out, to save sinful men, and this required a full and proper Incarnation, as Hebrews 2:17 puts it, ‘Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.’ But Apollinarius really taught only a partial Incarnation, in which Jesus had only a human body. But the body is not the main seat of sin in us, we are all conscious that sin is a matter of the soul even before it is of the body. A partial Incarnation in which the Son of God was only made partially ‘like unto his brethren,’ but was not ‘in all things… like unto his brethren,’ left the root of the matter unaddressed.

Apollinarius attempted to address this criticism by adopting a Trichotomist position and modifying his teaching accordingly. Now he said that Jesus had a human body and soul, but that the spirit, the higher part of human nature, was replaced by the Word. But this did not address Gregory’s point at all, for it still meant that Apollinarius was teaching that Jesus had a defective, partial human nature, and the very highest element in man, which distinguishes man from the animals, was not assumed, and therefore not healed by Christ’s work.

There was also the vital matter of Christ’s active obedience to the Law, which is imputed to believers. If the Incarnation was only the Son of God in a human body, there was no human will in that obedience to render to God obedience in our place, so it is not human obedience at all. And that meant, Gregory pointed out, no salvation! But that was Apollinarius’ great blind spot, he had become so involved in the intricacies of philosophical speculation that he had simply forgotten that the Incarnation was in order to accomplish an end, namely the salvation of sinners.


Even though corrected by Athanasius and the Cappadocians, Apollinarius refused to reconsider his teaching, much less recant, and battle lines were drawn. By 377 there was the beginnings of a recognisable Apollinarian party, as the Bishop of Laodicea drew away followers after himself, and the battle became heated. For their part, the Orthodox refused to compromise on this central issue.

While the controversy was serious, over vital issues, it never caused as serious a division as Arianism. In part this was because of the lessons that had been learned from the Arian controversy, that theology is a serious business, and a whole Bible approach must be taken in its consideration. Isolated proof-texts taken out of their context cannot establish a doctrine. Apollinarius was not given the time and opportunities Arius had; people listened to what he was saying rather than thinking in purely personal terms, and he did not play local politics. And Apollinarius was simply no Arius; while popular enough at Laodicea, he lacked the arch-heretic’s charisma and support network. Local synods condemned Apollinarius and his followers, at Rome in 377, Alexandria in 378, and Antioch in 379. With these three key centres united against him, Apollinarius and his party had been effectively rejected by the Church.

The controversy was one of the key issues at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD, where Gregory of Nazianzus served as President for a time. The Council re-affirmed the Nicene Creed, with expansions, and insisted on the key point against Apollinarius, that the eternal Son of God ‘was made man.’ Nicea had used the word, ‘man’ rather than ‘flesh’, and Apollinarius’ abuse of the Biblical language showed why that mattered; he explained ‘flesh’ in an overly literalistic way, and the Nicene ‘made man’ corrected him. It was, the Creed declared, ‘for us men and for our salvation’ that Christ was Incarnate, the very point Gregory insisted upon. Christian theology is never mere speculation. So while Apollinarius tried to appeal to the word in isolation, Gregory and the Council insisted on the meaning, even as the orthodox had refused to be swayed by Arius’ false reasoning concerning the word ‘Son.’

The Emperor Theodosius, who had come to the throne in 379, regarded himself as the appointed guardian of orthodoxy, and with the Council’s decision that Apollinarianism was a heresy, he decided to act. In 384/5 he issued an edict against those who taught the doctrine, and a second edict was issued in 388. This time Apollinarius himself was exiled, and he left Laodicea never to return, dying in 391. Apollinarianism was practically dead, yet the issue of the person of Christ remained, and it would take several more controversies before it was decided.

Later history of Apollinarianism

Apollinarianism was condemned at Constantinople, and has been regarded as heresy ever since – quite rightly. However, that does not mean that it has gone away. In that it represents, like Modalism and Arianism, a naïve attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, it is almost inevitable that when people start thinking about mechanics of the Incarnation, Apollinarianism will suggest itself as an ‘easy answer.’

Just as Apollinarius himself fell into heresy because of his philosophical speculations, so Apollinarianism remains a danger to the philosophically-minded, who wish to go beyond what is written and pry into the mechanics of the Incarnation. This is seen most clearly in certain of the 19th century Kenotic teachers. Basing their speculations on Philippians 2:7, where the Greek behind ‘Made himself of no reputation’ is literally ’emptied himself’ (Gr. ‘Ekenosen‘), they taught that the Incarnation involved in some sense a change in the Divine nature of Christ, in which certain divine attributes were given up.

Prominent among these was Gottfried Thomasius of Erlangen (1802-1875), who taught that the Logos was transformed into a human soul in the process of Incarnation, and that this ‘depotentiated’ Logos was then the soul of Jesus. A.B. Bruce states that Thomasius taught that ‘The Logos, to all intents and purposes, is transformed into a human soul.’ Yet there was an ambiguity in Thomasius’ teaching, perhaps because he realised that it was a form of Apollinarianism. Thomasius’ Erlangen colleague, Johannes Heinrich August Ebrard, refined Thomasius’ teaching.

Wolfgang Friedrich Gess (1819-1891), who taught at Basel and Göttingen, explicitly stated in his Scripture Doctrine of the Person of Christ that the Logos was transformed into a human soul and that this was the soul of Jesus, so that the Incarnation consisted of the clothing of this human soul with a human body.

The Kenotic version of Apollinarianism is more subtle than the rather crude original, in that it claims to teach the full humanity of Christ during his Incarnation, but it is none the less ruinous, for if Jesus’ human spirit was the Second Person of the Trinity transformed into a human spirit, then the glorification of Christ must mean that Divinity regaining its original nature, so that the glorified Christ no longer has a human spirit, so he is now less than human. Furthermore, it makes the Divine nature subject to change, explicitly denying the immutability of God, just as Basil pointed out. If the Divine nature can be transformed into a human soul, what becomes of any distinction between Creator and creation?

Influenced by the earlier Kenoticists, the German Church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), whose theology saw the ‘deification’ of man as the end of Christianity, came to believe that Apollinarius was correct in his view of the Incarnation, and the orthodox were in error. This is unsurprising since Harnack was unsound on the purpose of Christ’s Incarnation. Where something other than the Bible is in the driving seat, as it were, it should come as no surprise to find false teaching.

But it is not only in theological colleges and among the philosophers that Apollinarianism rears its head. In simpler, more naïve circles, the danger of Apollinarianism is often not discerned, and it is fallen into. Often this is not made explicit, but there is a silence on Christ’s humanity, and a picture is presented of a Christ who is God with a human body, but who lacks the human heart. It was this image of Christ the divine judge, untempered by fellow-feeling, that Luther in his pre-Reformation days was tormented with, and which was a major element in the unbiblical exaltation of Mary as mediator and friend of sinners in the medieval church.

And this incipient and almost instinctual Apollinarianism is not only found in Rome; it can also be found in a certain reaction against teachings that assert a purely human Christ, as in contemporary liberalism and historic Unitarianism. In such cases the theological conservative may come to regard any assertion of the humanity of Christ as a de facto denial of his deity, and therefore an assertion of heresy, resulting in an imbalanced and unhealthy theology. We have seen this in some Fundamentalists, fulminating against thoroughly orthodox statements simply because they assert that Christ is fully human, when there is no denial of the deity of Christ.

The Error of Apollinarianism

The fatal error of Apollinarianism is that, in an attempt to safeguard the deity and the unity of Christ, it ends up denying his humanity. It is a warning, like most of the great heresies, that our theology needs to have a Biblical balance, and therefore must be grounded in the Bible. Ultimately Apollinarius, although he opposed Arius, fell into the same trap; his theology became separated from the Bible, and so he wandered away from the truth to become lost in a maze of airy speculations. Because of his preoccupations, it landed him in a different place from Arius, but one equally divorced from Biblical truth. The Cappadocians escaped this, not because they were not educated in philosophy, but because they were aware of the source of Apollinarius’ categories, and recognised that they were imposed on the text from outside, not derived from it.

Apollinarius began with good intentions, the trouble was that he tried to explain what is not explained (and what cannot be explained), and he did so using categories derived from secular philosophy rather than the Bible. There is a sense in which Apollinarianism is to Christology what Sabellianism is to the Trinity: a sacrificing of the distinctions in the name of the union, under the influence of ideas derived from elsewhere than the Bible.

The Apollinarian answer as to how the Incarnation works ‘makes sense’ from a philosophical standpoint; the absence of a part of the human nature provides a convenient ‘hole’ as it were in which the Divine nature can be fitted. The problem is that it is too convenient; it reduces a glorious mystery to a level where we can understand it, and at the same time it actually destroys the reality of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation is destroyed because, in Apollinarius’ teaching, Jesus Christ is not perfect man; he is imperfect, because incomplete, man; an imperfection that is not moral, but one of nature, yet nevertheless real. Apollinarianism, from this angle, appears as a type of Docetism, the teaching that Jesus Christ only appeared to be human. Whereas the Docetism of the Gnostics consisted in a denial of his physicality, that of Apollinarius is more subtle, but just as real, in that the human nature of Christ is, considered in itself, a partial one, a body alone, or a human nature lacking that highest element which distinguishes man from the animals.

In fact the Biblical teaching on the Incarnation completely precludes the idea that ‘flesh’ simply means the body, whether animated or otherwise. John 1:14 says, ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Obviously John is not saying that the Divine nature took to himself a body alone, but that he became man. Apollinarius went so far as to say that it was really improper to call Jesus a man, but the Bible does just that, in Romans 5:15, Paul speaks of ‘the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ,’ and of course there is the familiar phrase in 1 Timothy 2:5, ‘the man Christ Jesus.’ We venture to say that the Scripture is of greater authority than the mere speculations of Apollinarius.

Again, Paul’s use of the term ‘flesh’ shows how dangerously misguided Apollinarius’ narrowing of the term was. In Romans 3:20, Paul writes, ‘Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight.’ Does Apollinarius really expect us to think that only human bodies are justified? Or that it is only the body that cannot be justified by the Law? Of course not. Again, in Romans 6:19, Paul says, ‘I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh.’ Does this mean Paul’s readers were unwell? No, he refers to the infirmity of the whole of human nature as affected by the fall.

Gregory of Nazianzus hit the nail on the head with his great theological statement, ‘What has not been assumed has not been healed.’ While the phrase is not in the Bible, the idea certainly is. Romans 8:3 says, ‘For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.’ Christ is our substitute; he became man so that he might be that substitute, and to be a true substitute, he must be made fully man, ‘Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren’ (Hebrews 2:17). Apollinarius insisted that ‘flesh’ meant a human body only, but Gregory noted that the seat of sin in fallen men is not really the body, but the soul. As our Lord said, ‘out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies’ (Matthew 15:19). Not the heart as a muscle, of course, but the heart as the core of a man’s being. Thus ‘the flesh’ is not only the body, but the soul as well, the fullness of human nature.

So an Incarnation that was nothing more than God wearing a human body does not touch the problem; such a being cannot truly be spoken of in the words of Hebrews 4:15, ‘For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.’ Such a being cannot know temptation at all, nor our infirmities. Apollinarius takes away the mediator, as he takes away the true humanity of Christ.

Apollinarianism leaves us with a Christ who cannot save, and who, since he is not truly man, cannot be a mediator between God and men. Yet 1 Timothy 2:5 is very clear, ‘For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.’ Uniting God and man in his person, he is the perfect mediator; Apollinarius takes away that mediator, and gives us God in disguise, as it were, never truly entering into man’s experience. His false Christology completely destroys Christian soteriology.

Lessons of the Apollinarian Controversy

The first lesson that we learn from this controversy is the vital one that we must take great care not to react against one heresy by falling into the opposite error. Apollinarius was so concerned about the deity of Christ that he forgot the equally vital doctrine of the humanity of Christ, that he became man for us and for our salvation. He lost his balance, and ultimately lost the doctrine of the Atonement as a result.

And that is the second lesson we learn; that we can be so concerned about theological controversies that we forget the atonement. Apollinarius became so obsessed with the nature of the Incarnation that he forgot the reason for the Incarnation. The Bible is a unity, and Biblical theology is united; everything is joined up, it is not a matter of separate topics that do not interact with each other, but a great harmonious ‘body of divinity,’ all working together and together displaying the glory of God.

Just as it was the Arian controversy that led Apollinarius to take his eyes off the cross, modern controversies can have the same effect on us. But the temptation needs to be resisted; we must have a theology that is a whole-Bible theology, and a vision that is focused on the Cross of Jesus Christ.

A third lesson from the Controversy is that, as the proverb has it, ‘little learning is a dangerous thing.’ Apollinarius was a fairly cultured man, but that learning went to his head. Basil and Gregory, university graduates, were able to see beyond the allure of classical culture in a way that Apollinarius was not. We too need to be able to look beyond the glitter of a writer’s Ph.D. or Chair of this, that, or the other, and remember that all the treasures of wisdom are in Christ. That is not to speak against education; anti-intellectualism is as dangerous as the exaltation of the intellect, but to insist on a realistic approach to learning, and to subordinate all learning to Christ. ‘The world through wisdom knew not God,’ the Bible cautions us; worldly philosophy does not open up the Bible for us, the Holy Spirit does that.

Apollinarius stands as a great warning against speculation in theology. The theologian has no business going beyond what is written in the Scriptures, and must take great heed of the truth spoken in Deuteronomy 29:29, ‘The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever.’ We deal with what God has said; what God has not revealed, we cannot pry into.

The Apollinarian controversy also challenges us to have a full-orbed Biblical view of the Incarnation, which will protect us against many errors. In his notorious book Honest to God, Bishop John A.T. Robinson accused orthodox Christianity of teaching that Jesus was ‘God dressed up like a man,’ like a man in fancy dress. But that is emphatically not the orthodox view; it is Apollinarianism, denounced as a heresy for good reason. Thus the orthodox response to Robinson is that he has caricatured, either deliberately or accidentally, the orthodox position, and so attacked a heresy rather than the target he claims to be aiming for. And the Apollinarian controversy reminds us of this, and allows us to reply, ‘I quite agree that such an idea is wrong – and that is not what I believe, or what the Bible teaches.’


We have in our library four books, which we have arranged together to spell out a message, they are: Which Jesus? This Jesus, The God-Man, Christ the Lord. There are many ‘Jesuses’ being taught out there, just as Paul in 2 Corinthians 11 speaks of he that ‘preacheth another Jesus,’ so we must ask the question, ‘Which Jesus?’ Since questions are asked in order to be answered, we reply, ‘this Jesus,’ and then explain that he is ‘The God-Man, Christ the Lord.’ All of these points are of vital importance, and to deny any is ruinous. Apollinarius denied the humanity of Christ; that is to say that he was perfectly happy talking about Christ as God, but never as man. This is a warning to us who hold tenaciously and properly to the deity of Christ in the face of liberal denials of that deity, that we must also hold to the complementary truth that the Incarnation is true and real. ‘God was manifest in the flesh.’ The value of the controversy was that it forced believers to go to the Bible and to ask what the Bible teaches about the person of Christ.

The study of the Apollinarian controversy should leave us in wonder at that one who was born, and yet who is eternal, at the God-Man who is ascended on high and remains ‘God with us,’ and also God for us, as our mediator and advocate, our great high priest. What Apollinarius denied is unutterably precious to believers.

With joy we meditate the grace
Of our High Priest above;
His heart is made of tenderness,
His bowels melt with love.

Touched with a sympathy within,
He knows our feeble frame;
He knows what sore temptations mean,
For He has felt the same.

– Isaac Watts

This wondrous Man of whom we tell,
Is true Almighty God;
He bought our souls from death and hell;
The price, His own heart’s blood.

That human heart he still retains,
Though throned in highest bliss;
And feels each tempted member’s pains,
For their affliction’s his.

-Joseph Hart

Taken with permission from Peace and Truth, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union, 2017:1, by its editor who is the author of the above.

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