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Showing posts with label apostolicity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label apostolicity. Show all posts

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Apostolicity of the Post-Apostolic Church (Part 2 of 3): Clarifying Catholic teaching on apostolic succession in the early Church

1. Apologetics vs. historiography
2. Addressing some misconceptions about Catholic teaching on apostolic succession
3. What does Catholicism expect from the historical record?

I ended the first article of this series by promising, in the sequel, to provide historical evidence supporting the doctrine of apostolic succession. However, I must beg the reader's patience as I will only get to the evidence in the next article. This article serves as a necessary preamble.

In the previous article we explored the three ways in which the Church is apostolic, from the Catholic point of view: apostolic origins, apostolic teaching and apostolic succession. All Christians today agree that the earliest Church was led and spread by Jesus's apostles. The Catholic Church (along with the Orthodox and Anglicans) affirms that the apostles' teachings were transmitted to posterity in two forms: written scriptures and oral tradition. They likewise affirm that the apostles bequeathed a continuous chain of successors (bishops) to lead the faithful and preserve and interpret their written and oral teachings. These two doctrines enjoyed virtually universal acceptance among Christians for well over a millennium (i.e., c. 300-1500 A.D.) but have remained controversial in the West since their rejection by the Reformers in the 16th century.

1. Apologetics vs. historiography

When an apologist comes to the textual data concerning early church government and authority, his/her aim is to defend a contemporary doctrine of church government that he/she holds (on the assumption that ancient precedents remain normative today). The desire to make one's position as credible as possible may lead an apologist to read the evidence with a theological bias. This could manifest as exaggerated uniformity in the data, tendentious interpretation of problematic texts, etc.

When a contemporary historian comes to the same data, his/her aim is to reconstruct past events and circumstances objectively, without regard to theological convictions. This is good insofar as it mitigates theological bias. However, the desire to be perceived as critical, impartial and/or ecumenical may lead a historian to approach the evidence with a bias against his or her own theological background (or against theology itself). This could manifest as an exaggerated diversity in the data, skepticism of ancient or traditional perspectives (a "hermeneutics of suspicion"), etc.

In this article I am trying to wear both hats in order to achieve a balance of biases. I make no secret of my Catholic theological bias (one I acquired only recently), but I want to be critical and fair in my interpretation of the evidence. The reader may decide how far I have succeeded.

2. Addressing some misconceptions about Catholic teaching on apostolic succession

The Roman Catholic Church of today has a clearly defined hierarchical structure. There are three sacramental ministerial orders—bishops, presbyters (priests) and deacons—each with clearly defined powers. Each local jurisdiction of the Church is ruled by a single monarchical bishop. One of these bishops, the bishop of Rome, also reigns over all the other bishops. The pope, who is regarded as the successor of St. Peter, rules over the other bishops, who are all regarded as successors of the apostles. The pope is the global face of the Catholic Church, a visible marker of its unity.

Some naive Catholics would insist that the above description is exactly what the Catholic Church has always looked like, from the time the apostles died out c. 100 A.D. down through history. However, when many contemporary historians, including Catholic historians, study early Christian texts they paint a very different picture. For instance, they find that monoepiscopacy (monarchical rule by a single bishop over a city or locale) was a gradual development, including in Rome, and not the established norm until the late second century or later. They find that terms like episkopos (bishop/overseer) and presbyteros (presbyter/elder) are used interchangeably in some texts, along with other terms like didaskalos (teacher) and hēgoumenos (leader), and not as the ecclesiastical technical terms they would later become. Most importantly for our purposes here, some historians assert that the doctrine of apostolic succession through bishops developed in the late second century and that the episcopal succession lists published at that time were fabrications.

Ultraconservative Catholic apologists vehemently contest all of the above findings, and sometimes resort to very contrived and far-fetched arguments in the process. Meanwhile, triumphalist Protestant apologists tout the historians' findings as though they have reduced the Catholic faith to an absurd fantasy. They take particular glee in citing Catholic historians as "hostile witnesses" against their own faith.

It turns out that both sets of apologists are misguided. Historical research has shown that the hierarchical structure of the Church underwent development over time. However, what many Protestant apologists have failed to recognise is that Catholic theology allows for such development (within certain parameters). For example, (although the papacy is not our main concern here), one Catholic scholar observes, "It is not prima facie obvious that a high doctrine of the papacy does require that a single bishop exercised magisterial authority in Rome in the immediate post-apostolic age."1

The most famous Catholic proponent of the theory of doctrinal development was, of course, Cardinal Newman in the 19th century. Specifically on the episcopate and the papacy, Newman explained why these structural features of the Church became more visible over time:
While Apostles were on earth, there was the display neither of Bishop nor Pope; their power had no prominence, as being exercised by Apostles. In course of time, first the power of the Bishop displayed itself, and then the power of the Pope...  
When the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated. And, in like manner, it was natural for Christians to direct their course in matters of doctrine by the guidance of mere floating, and, as it were, endemic tradition, while it was fresh and strong; but in proportion as it languished, or was broken in particular places, did it become necessary to fall back upon its special homes, first the Apostolic Sees, and then the See of St. Peter.2
The magisterial document Lumen Gentium from the Second Vatican Council, which formally defines Catholic doctrine about the Church, has the following to say about the origin of apostolic succession:
That divine mission, entrusted by Christ to the apostles, will last until the end of the world, since the Gospel they are to teach is for all time the source of all life for the Church. And for this reason the apostles, appointed as rulers in this society, took care to appoint successors. For they not only had helpers in their ministry, but also, in order that the mission assigned to them might continue after their death, they passed on to their immediate cooperators, as it were, in the form of a testament, the duty of confirming and finishing the work begun by themselves, recommending to them that they attend to the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit placed them to shepherd the Church of God. They therefore appointed such men, and gave them the order that, when they should have died, other approved men would take up their ministry. Among those various ministries which, according to tradition, were exercised in the Church from the earliest times, the chief place belongs to the office of those who, appointed to the episcopate, by a succession running from the beginning, are passers-on of the apostolic seed. Thus, as St. Irenaeus testifies, through those who were appointed bishops by the apostles, and through their successors down in our own time, the apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved.
Notice that Lumen Gentium reaffirms the historical foundations of the doctrine of apostolic succession through episcopacy. However, it does not make any specific claims about when or how monoepiscopacy—open and uncontested rule by one bishop within a region—developed. The Church's dogmatic teaching on apostolic succession is thus at least compatible with a developmental paradigm. Indeed, consider the following excerpts from the post-Vatican II document Catholic Teaching on Apostolic Succession:
The documents of the New Testament show that in the early days of the Church and in the lifetime of the apostles there was diversity in the way communities were organized... Those who directed communities in the lifetime of the apostles or after their death have different names in the New Testament texts: the presbyteroi-episkopoi are described as poimenes, hegoumenoi, proistamenoi, kyberneseis. In comparison with the rest of the Church, the feature of the presbyteroi-episkopoi is their apostolic ministry of teaching and governing. Whatever the method by which they are chosen, whether through the authority of the Twelve or Paul or some link with them, they share in the authority of the apostles who were instituted by Christ and who maintain for all time their unique character. In the course of time this ministry underwent a development... Already in the New Testament texts there are echoes of the transition from the apostolic period to the subapostolic age, and one begins to see signs of the development that in the second century led to the stabilization and general recognition of the episcopal ministry... The absence of documents makes it difficult to say precisely how these transitions came about. By the end of the first century the situation was that the apostles or their closest helpers or eventually their successors directed the local colleges of episkopoi and presbyteroi. By the beginning of the second century the figure of a single bishop who is the head of the communities appears very clearly in the letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who further claims that this institution is established "unto the ends of the earth" (Ad Epk. 3, 2).
Although not a magisterial document, this study was produced by a committee of leading Catholic theologians appointed by the pope. It thus represents a mainstream Catholic perspective on early Church history. It is therefore interesting that the document makes numerous statements in line with the findings of contemporary historians. First, the document acknowledges that there was diversity in the earliest Christian communities both in terms of organizational structure and in the terminology used for community leaders. Second, the document speaks explicitly of "development" and "transitions" in Christian ministry, specifically the "stabilization and general recognition of the episcopal ministry." Third, the document acknowledges that the historical evidence from the late first and early second centuries is too thin to permit dogmatic reconstructions of the development of Christian ministry during this period. These statements might shock some naive Catholics who would like to picture St. Peter's earliest successors making public appearances on the balcony of a basilica. However, they ought also to give pause to Protestant apologists who too easily conclude that the earliest historical evidence concerning Christian ministry is incompatible with Catholic theology.

3. What does Catholicism expect from the historical record?

What sort of evidence would we expect to find in the historical record if the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession were true? Firstly, we would not necessarily expect to find evidence that the apostles left monarchical bishops as their immediate successors. However, we might expect to find evidence that the apostles did leave successors in the form of a divinely ordained office. That is, evidence that they did not merely happen to leave behind some protégés, but created a ministry that they understood to be divinely sanctioned. Secondly, we would not necessarily expect to find evidence that unbroken "succession lists" of bishops going back to the apostles were theologically important immediately after the apostles died. We might, however, expect to find evidence that such succession lists became theologically important within a couple of generations, as living memory of the apostles disappeared and direct links to the apostles could no longer be verified by eyewitness testimony. (As long as there were people around who could recall the apostles' teachings firsthand, their successors would not have the same value as preservers of apostolic teaching as they would acquire thereafter.) Finally, we would not expect to find evidence supporting a Protestant model of Church government and post-apostolic apostolicity over against the Catholic model. For instance, if it could be shown that the apostles provided a fixed, completed canon of Scripture to serve as the sole locus of theological authority after they died (over against any notion of theological authority vesting in ministerial leaders), this would be quite fatal to Catholic ecclesiology.

It must also be emphasised that a relative sparseness of evidence for the idea of apostolic succession within the New Testament is not particularly problematic for Catholic theology. In the apostolic period there was little concern over who would lead the Church after the apostles died, for the simple reason that the earliest Christians anticipated that "Church history" would be more of a sprint than a marathon. The Lord's promised Parousia was believed to be imminent (Phil. 4:5; Jas 5:9; Rev. 22:20; etc.) A community that expects its leadership to become redundant in the very near future does not prioritise long-term succession planning. Thus, that the New Testament leaves us with little information about how the apostles envisioned the Church to be governed in the post-apostolic period is regrettable, but not surprising.

With these preliminaries out of the way, the third part of this study will finally discuss the historical evidence concerning apostolic succession directly. This study is not intended as a comprehensive treatment of the relevant historical evidence, nor is it intended to "prove" the doctrine of apostolic succession. The aim is more modest: to show that the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession is consistent with the historical record. This doctrine cannot, however, be "proven"; it can only be received by faith. The ground for belief in this doctrine is that the Church declares it to be so. Nevertheless, faith and reason are friends and not enemies, which is why a consideration of historical evidence is meaningful.


  • 1 David Albert Jones, "Was there a Bishop of Rome in the First Century?", New Blackfriars 80 (1999): 128.
  • 2 John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 2nd ed. (London: Piccadilly, 1846), 165-67. The excerpts here do not convey the full power of the argument of the section, which the reader is encouraged to consult.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Apostolicity of the Post-Apostolic Church (Part 1 of 3): Apostolic origins, teaching and succession, and non-traditional perspectives

Virtually any Christian would agree that "apostolic" is an attribute the Church ought to have. Indeed, "apostolic" is among the four characteristics of the Church specified in the Nicene Creed (the others being "one," "holy" and "catholic"). But what does it mean for the Church to be "apostolic" in the post-apostolic period—indeed, some nineteen centuries after the original apostles died? Contemporary Christian answers to this question vary but fall into three broad categories.

Most Protestant movements view today's Church as "apostolic" only to the extent that it remains faithful to the apostles' doctrines and practices as preserved in the New Testament. This might be termed indirect apostolicity. However, during the past two centuries some Christians have taught that the office of "apostle" has been prophetically restored. Consequently, some churches today—particularly the various "Apostolic Church" sub-denominations and some Pentecostal churches—call their leaders "apostles." This might be termed direct apostolicity.

These are both relatively new answers to the question of what it means for the post-apostolic Church to be apostolic. There is a third answer that was uncontested for well over a millennium of Church history (say, from the third through fifteenth centuries) and is still maintained today by Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Christians. This answer portrays the apostolicity of the Church in three aspects: apostolic origins, apostolic teaching and apostolic succession. Before explaining further, let us note the extent to which it agrees with the two newer answers described above. The traditional answer agrees that faithfulness to apostolic teaching as preserved in the New Testament is essential to the Church's continued apostolicity. It agrees with one group of Protestants that the office of "apostle" was unique and confined to the early church. However, it agrees with the other group of Protestants that the post-apostolic Church retains a direct kind of apostolicity.

Again, the traditional, Catholic-Orthodox-Anglican view understands the Church's apostolicity under three aspects: apostolic origins, apostolic teaching and apostolic succession. Herein I will focus on the Roman Catholic expression of apostolicity. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
The Church is apostolic because she is founded on the apostles, in three ways: 
  • she was and remains built on "the foundation of the Apostles," The witnesses chosen and sent on mission by Christ himself; 
  • with the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, The "good deposit," the salutary words she has heard from the apostles; 
  • she continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ's return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, "assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church's supreme pastor" (CCC 857)

The first bullet point highlights the importance of the ancient apostles—something all Christians acknowledge—and stresses their uniqueness. While the sense of the Greek word apostolos is something like "envoy," it gradually became a technical term in Christian circles, denoting those individuals that the risen Jesus personally, verbally commissioned to build and lead the Church. "The Twelve" were of course the most famous group of apostles (Mark 3:14; Rev. 21:14; etc.), but there were others. Also described as apostles within the New Testament are Paul (Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:1; Acts 14:14; etc.), Barnabas (Acts 14:14; 15:2), James the Lord's brother (Gal. 1:19) and possibly Andronicus and Junia(s) (Rom. 16:7)—this last case being most controversial because it may refer to a female, Junia, as an apostle (though both the name and whether these two are being called apostles are ambiguous). There were, at a minimum, sixteen people who held the office of "apostle" (the Twelve, Matthias as Judas's replacement, James, Barnabas and Paul), but perhaps many more than that.1

Paul seems to imply in 1 Cor. 15:8-9 that being a witness of Jesus's resurrection was a prerequisite for being an apostle (cf. Acts 1:22-26). Moreover, Paul's words "Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me" suggest that the timing of his apostolic commissioning (after Jesus's ascension) was exceptional and that he was the last apostle to be commissioned. There is no indication in the New Testament that more apostles were expected in the future, nor is there any indication that the patristic, medieval or Reformation-era Church ever anticipated a latter-day restoration of the apostolic office. Thus the claim that the apostolic office was recreated unexpectedly ex nihilo in the nineteenth or twentieth century is biblically and historically suspect.

According to the second bullet point above, the Church remains apostolic by handing on the apostles' teaching. The Catechism elsewhere elaborates on the two forms that this teaching took:
In keeping with the Lord's command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways: 
  • orally "by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received - whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit"; 
  • in writing "by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing" (CCC 76)
Thus, from a Catholic/Orthodox perspective, apostolic teaching consists not only of the New Testament (in which most of the apostles are not represented as authors) but also of oral apostolic teachings known as "apostolic tradition." This idea may sound strange to Protestant ears, but again it was uncontested in the Church for over a millennium. An example of a practice followed unquestioningly by most Protestants that rests more on apostolic tradition than the New Testament is that of meeting on Sunday for worship and not keeping Saturday as the Sabbath. As Protestant biblical scholar Craig Keener, a leading authority on Acts (and not a Seventh-Day Adventist) states,
Those who regard second- and third-century traditions as normative will observe Sunday, but this need not be normative for churches that start only from Scripture.2
Now, unquestionably the apostles transmitted teachings orally that they considered to have as much authority as their writings (2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Cor. 11:2, 34; 2 John 12; 3 John 13-14). The problem is, how do we know nineteen centuries later what these oral teachings were? We have all probably played the game "Telephone" ("Chinese Whispers" in the U.K.) where a message is whispered from ear to ear around a circle or down a queue of people. The point of the game is to show how radically the initial message changes through this iterative transmission process.3 Authentic "apostolic tradition" could, therefore, not be preserved so as to retain its authority unless the Holy Spirit were somehow involved in the oral transmission process. Enter the doctrine of apostolic succession.

The Catechism explains the relationship between apostolic teaching and apostolic succession thus:
[The apostolic preaching was]...continued in apostolic succession[:] "In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority." Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time. This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, "the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes." (CCC 76-78)
And again:
"The criterion that assures unity amid the diversity of liturgical traditions is fidelity to apostolic Tradition, i.e., the communion in the faith and the sacraments received from the apostles, a communion that is both signified and guaranteed by apostolic succession." (CCC 1209)
Without this Spirit-guided apostolic succession there would be no basis for trusting that any teachings of the apostles had been preserved orally. Therefore the Catholic/Orthodox claim that the Church has reliably transmitted "apostolic tradition" stands or falls with the doctrine of apostolic succession.

We have seen that the doctrine of apostolic tradition rests on the doctrine of apostolic succession. The latter is a tangible, historical claim: namely, that the bishops of the Church today are in an unbroken line of succession going back to the apostles, who set this process in motion. However, it would be a serious mistake to view the doctrine of apostolic succession as merely a matter of history or ecclesiastical politics. It is a theological idea: apostolic succession is a process believed to have been initiated and perpetuated by the Holy Spirit in order to safeguard the Church and her gospel. It is one of the means by which Christ fulfilled his promises to found the Church on a rock so that the gates of Hades might not prevail against her, supply the Church with the Holy Spirit perpetually, nourish the Church, be with the Church until the close of the age (Matt. 16:18; 28:20; John 14:16-17; Eph. 5:29).

Apostolic succession is a big part of the Catholic/Orthodox answer to the question, "What became of the Church after the apostles died?" Post-Reformation Christian movements tend to offer different—and very pessimistic—answers to this question: the Church was devastated by a great falling away and became largely corrupt, whether rapidly or gradually. Hence the need for reform or, in more radical sectarian circles, restoration of the long-lost apostolic faith. Such movements point to numerous New Testament passages about doctrinal corruption and heresy that would afflict the post-apostolic Church (2 Thess. 2:3-12; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 4:3-4; 1 John 4:1-3). According to post-Reformation thinkers, the power grab resulting from "apostolic succession" claims caused or accelerated this corruption. By contrast, from a Catholic/Orthodox perspective apostolic succession is a divinely ordained protection against heresy. (We will see later that St. Irenaeus made exactly this point in the second century.)

What provision did God make for the survival of the early Church? According to 19th-century Christadelphian apologist Robert Roberts, the provisions God made were the apostles and their writings, the New Testament. "Apostolic tradition," he insists, could not have worked.
If the early churches, consisting of men and women fresh from the abominations and immoralities of heathenism, and without the authoritative standard of the completed Scripture which now exists, had been left to the mere power of apostolic tradition intellectually received, they could not have held together. The winds of doctrine, blowing about through the activity of 'men of corrupt minds,' would have broken them from their moorings, and they would have been tossed to and fro in the billows of uncertain and conflicting report and opinion, and finally stranded in hopeless shipwreck. This catastrophe was prevented by the gifts of the spirit. Properly qualified men, as to moral and intellectual parts, were made the repositories of these gifts, and empowered to 'speak and exhort, and rebuke with all authority.' They 'ruled' the communities over which they were placed, feeding the flock of God over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers... In this way the early churches were built up and edified. The work of the apostles was conserved, improved, and carried to a consummation. The faith was completed and consolidated by the voice of inspiration, speaking through the spiritually-appointed leaders of the churches. By this means the results of gospel-preaching in the first century, when there were no railways, telegraphs, or other means of a rapid circulation of ideas, instead of evaporating to nothing, as, otherwise, they would have done, were secured and made permanent, both as regards that generation and succeeding centuries.4
Now, Roberts's picture of the early church is fraught with inconsistencies. During the first century, most "converts" to Christianity were Jews and Gentile God-fearers. It was in the second and third centuries that converts consisted largely "of men and women fresh from the abominations and immoralities of heathenism". Thus, according to Roberts's own model, the Holy Spirit and apostolic authority vanished precisely when they were needed most. Furthermore, the second-century Church was still "without the authoritative standard of the completed Scripture which now exists". The apostles did not bequeath to the Church a completed New Testament canon; it took generations for the boundaries of the canon to take shape and centuries to be finaliseda task left to post-apostolic ecclesiastical authorities. What provision did God make for the interim period when there were no longer apostles and there was not yet the "authoritative standard of the completed Scripture"? Roberts does not answer this question, but his logic requires that God must have made some provision and not merely abandoned the post-apostolic Church. Is it not at least plausible that, just as God used Spirit-led apostles to preserve and transmit the teachings of Jesus after His ascension, so God used other Spirit-led men to preserve and transmit the teachings of the apostles—the apostolic tradition—after the apostles died?

Thus, far from demonstrating that ecclesiastical authority and the Holy Spirit were no longer needed after the apostles, Roberts's own arguments suggest the opposite. His rejection of "the mere power of apostolic tradition intellectually received" is moot if the apostolic tradition was transmitted by the Holy Spirit rather than merely the human intellect as Robert assumes. This assumption in turn rests on the assumption that the apostles had no divinely appointed successors, which rests on an argument from silence, namely that God "never, so far as we have any evidence, appointed 'successors' [to the apostles]."5

If, then, we can produce evidence for apostolic succession, Roberts's model of God's plan for the early Church—already severely weakened by the chronological gap between the apostles and the availability of a complete New Testament—will come crashing down. In the second half of this article, we will look at evidence for apostolic succession in Christian writings from the late first through late second centuries.


  • 1 Paul in 1 Cor. 15:6 refers to more than five hundred people who met the condition of having witnessed the risen Lord, though this does not necessarily mean they were all apostles. Didache 11.3-6, written probably toward the end of the first century, refers to apostles quite generically, as though they were fairly numerous, although by this time probably nearly all of the aforementioned sixteen had died. One must bear in mind, however, that ecclesiological terminology was not standardized in the first century, so it is not certain that the author of the Didache understood the term "apostle" as technically as Paul, for example, seems to have done.
  • 2 There is some limited anecdotal evidence in the New Testament that the first day of the week held special significance—see Keener's comments on Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor. 16:2—but nothing like a decree that the Sabbath has been set aside or supplanted by the first day of the week.
  • 3 In my own experience, the message has sometimes been preserved almost perfectly, rather amusingly undermining the point the facilitator was trying to make! Nevertheless, the principle is valid that errors gradually accumulate through iterative oral transmission of a message.
  • 4 Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray, p. 148.
  • 5 Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray, p. 147, emphasis added.