Last week I was blessed to be interviewed by my friend Dr Duane Alexander Miller about my book, The Manuscripts of Leo the Great’s Letters. Parts 1 & 2 are available below:
Last week I was blessed to be interviewed by my friend Dr Duane Alexander Miller about my book, The Manuscripts of Leo the Great’s Letters. Parts 1 & 2 are available below:
As a final question to my students in “The Seven Ecumenical Councils in Historical Context”, I asked which council was each person’s favourite. Votes came in for Nicaea, Ephesus, Constantinople II, and Chalcedon. I affirmed that I still prefer Chalcedon. One student asked who the greatest theologian we’d read in the course was. I’ll save that for another post…
Why do I still like the Council of Chalcedon after all these years?
I think any other reasons would come in as subsidiaries to these. But these are the reasons why the Council of Chalcedon of 451 is my favourite ecumenical council.
In two weeks, I am giving the Davenant Fellows lecture. My title is, “The Christmas Councils: Upholding Christ’s Humanity in the Ecumenical Councils, 451-787AD.” The official blurb and registration are here–it’s free! You don’t need to have watched my lecture from last December, entitled “Christmas and the Cross in the Ancient Church” and about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, but this one does pick up the chronology where that one left off. It’s on YouTube at this link.
This lecture will cover the period of the last four ecumenical councils (I’ll be teaching all seven for Davenant Hall this January — you can register here — it’s not free), but the focus will actually skip the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Constantinople of 553. In good, Protestant sermon fashion (or like a five paragraph essay), I’ll have three main points to explore:
Each of these men articulated the theological vision that was approved at the respective council. And each of them was fighting to maintain a full vision of the humanity of Christ, a humanity at risk of being swallowed up by divinity in Eutychianism in Leo’s day, a humanity at risk of being diminished to having no will in Monothelitism in Maximus’ day, a humanity at risk of being detached from history and becoming a mere point of dogmatic assent in Iconoclasm in John of Damascus’ day.
The teachings of this era in church history help us orient our hearts and minds to the God Word Incarnate with ramifications for our worship, our ethics, and our witness to the world around.
Jesus is the Gospel, so it matters if we get these things right or not.
I am giving a talk in a few days about the relevance of Leo the Great’s letters for the modern Middle East. The basic argument is: the Oriental Orthodox still reject Leo’s theology and the Council of Chalcedon, however nuanced their official positions may be, based upon ecumenical joint declarations about Christology. The root of the schism between the Miaphysites and the imperial church (whose descendants are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) is the acceptance of Leo’s Christology at Chalcedon in 451.
What I want to find are stats on the different churches of the Middle East. Naively, I imagined that it was not necessarily so bad. There are the main focus of my investigation, the Oriental Orthodox: Coptic Orthodox, Syrian/Syriac Orthodox (“Jacobites”), Armenian Apostolic, as well as the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox. They are also in communion with the Indian Orthodox Church. And I knew there was also the Church of the East, formerly misleadingly called “Nestorian”. The other main churches I knew about are the Eastern Orthodox, particularly the Antiochene Orthodox and Georgian Orthodox, although I did visit an Eastern Orthodox church in Cairo that was under their own patriarch in Alexandria.
The destabilising element, however, is the West. First: the Church of Rome. I knew there were so-called “Melkites” in communion with Rome as the result of a simultaneous union with Rome and schism within the Antiochene Orthodox Church. I also knew about the Chaldean Catholics in Iraq, themselves of a similar event in the Church of the East. And I knew that the Maronites are in communion with Rome. Plus, of course, western Rite Roman Catholics. The Church of Rome’s attempts at reunion in the 17th and 18th centuries seem to have resulted in some members of most of the historic churches of the Middle East joining them, but some not.
It gets more complicated, of course, because Anglicans have tried similar things as the Roman Catholics, seeking to enter into full communion with indigenous churches that are of apostolic origin with episcopal structure. And some of them go for Anglicanism, others don’t. So even more schism. This is not to bring in the many splinters of Protestantism familiar to any of us from the West.
I have to admit at this point that it has grown vaguer because I found it very hard keeping all of the different historic churches of the Middle East in order. Many of them have very similar names, for one thing. Others I had never heard of. But they exist, and they seek to live out the Christian life faithfully in often trying circumstances, whether we think of Daesh/ISIS in Iraq or civil war in Syria or non-government-sanctioned moments of persecution in Egypt or the memory of attempted genocide on Armenian and Assyrian Christians by the Ottomans.
What all of these faithful followers of Jesus have in common is an apostolic lineage. All of them can trace their bishops through succession back to the apostles, just like the Bishop of Rome or of Canterbury — mind you, Archbishop Welby can trace his succession back to Augustine of Canterbury, and from him to Gregory the Great of Rome. But that sort of thing is how it works for most of these churches as well — they can trace their bishops back to a missionary bishop who was connected with an older church, and the chain goes back to the apostles.
When I think about this, the apostolic succession argument, even if I were to fully embrace it, it clearly not quite strong enough to convert me out of Anglicanism. First, we tend to think that we have apostolic succession, certain denials thereof by the Church of Rome notwithstanding. Second, whose apostolic succession to choose? Roman Catholicism? Eastern Orthodoxy? Oriental Orthodoxy? The Church of the East? All of them have a tendency to say that their own form of Christianity is nothing but the pure tradition handed down by the apostles. This is actually an important point I want to consider in a later post.
Anyway, the Middle East is complicated, not only for the above but also because we Protestants are there bringing new and different approaches to the faith, from Anglicanism and Methodism to Pentecostalism. Perhaps the saddest part of this is the fact that so much of the complication arose from attempts by the Roman Catholic Church to restore Christian unity centuries ago.
How might we do better today?
As I said last time, it was Vincent and Christology that really got me when reading the Commonitorium. From my angle, this is because I study Leo the Great and the transmission of his letters. Leo was himself a writer on Christology, and it was Christological controversy that both gave him the appellation ‘the Great’ and ensured the survival of so many of his letters.
For Vincent, Christology is important because it’s what’s just been being discussed at the Council of Ephesus in 431, where Nestorius was anathematised as a heretic by Cyril of Alexandria’s council, and John of Antioch’s council went without recognition or approval of the emperor. All sorts of politicking went on to gain approval, but from the monk’s eye view, what mattered was what was true.
That, essentially, is the point of the Commonitorium. Figure out the truth.
While truth-seeking method is Vincent’s main aim, he does provide some of this truth himself.
Vincent is opposed to Nestorianism, which he takes to be the belief that Christ was two persons, even if Nestorius denies believing that:
But if any one supposes that in his writings he speaks of one Christ, and preaches one Person of Christ, let him not lightly credit it. For either this is a crafty device, that by means of good he may the more easily persuade evil, according to that of the apostle, That which is good was made death to me, (Romans 7:13) — either, I say, he craftily affects in some places in his writings to believe one Christ and one Person of Christ, or else he says that after the Virgin had brought forth, the two Persons were united into one Christ, though at the time of her conception or parturition, and for some short time afterwards, there were two Christs; so that forsooth, though Christ was born at first an ordinary man and nothing more, and not as yet associated in unity of Person with the Word of God, yet afterwards the Person of the Word assuming descended upon Him; and though now the Person assumed remains in the glory of God, yet once there would seem to have been no difference between Him and all other men. (ch. 35)
Vincent proceeds to describe what the catholic faith in the Trinity and incarnation is. He does this in a way that, to me, is wholly consistent with the Latin tradition, arguing that, ‘In God there is one substance, but three Persons; in Christ two substances, but one Person.’ (ch. 37) He is using substantia here not unlike the way natura will be used as terms become more precise. By and large, he is on the trajectory that ends up at Leo (whether we read the history of theology teologically or not, that is where Latin theology goes):
Thus, then, in one and the same Christ there are two substances, one divine, the other human; one of (ex) God the Father, the other of (ex) the Virgin Mother; one co-eternal with and co-equal with the Father, the other temporal and inferior to the Father; one consubstantial with his Father, the other, consubstantial with his Mother, but one and the same Christ in both substances. There is not, therefore, one Christ God, the other man, not one uncreated, the other created; not one impassible, the other passible; not one equal to the Father, the other inferior to the Father; not one of his Father (ex), the other of his Mother (ex), but one and the same Christ, God and man, the same uncreated and created, the same unchangeable and incapable of suffering, the same acquainted by experience with both change and suffering, the same equal to the Father and inferior to the Father, the same begotten of the Father before time, (before the world), the same born of his mother in time (in the world), perfect God, perfect Man. In God supreme divinity, in man perfect humanity. Perfect humanity, I say, forasmuch as it has both soul and flesh; the flesh, very flesh; our flesh, his mother’s flesh; the soul, intellectual, endowed with mind and reason. (ch. 37)
This is, if you ask me, the thoughtworld of Leo’s Tome, even if expressed differently.
Moreover, I would argue that Vincent is also on the trajectory of the hypostatic union *edit AND communicatio idiomatum* — again, not that that’s a necessary end-point of thought, but he does seem to be leading there in chh. 39 and 40. He writes:
In consequence of which unity of Person, boththose attributes which are proper to God are ascribed to man, and those which are proper to the flesh to God, indifferently and promiscuously. (ch. 40)
He also writes:
Blessed, I say, be the Church, which declares this unity of Person to be so real and effectual, that because of it, in a marvellous and ineffable mystery, she ascribes divine attributes to man, and human to God; because of it, on the one hand, she does not deny that Man, as God, came down from heaven, on the other, she believes that God, as Man, was created, suffered, and was crucified on earth; because of it, finally, she confesses Man the Son of God, and God the Son of the Virgin. (ch. 41)
All of this is interesting to see going on in Southern Gaul in the 430s. Eastern debates are live, and the West has its way of articulating theology that will gain in nuance but, at least in these two questions, little in substance as the years go on. Of course, easterners as a result criticise us for allegedly just parrotting Augustine and Leo for 1500 years. And maybe that’s why we all need each other.
I’ve recently perused John Anthony McGuckin, The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years (IVP Academic 2017). I’ve not read the whole thing — frankly, I don’t have time, since it’s 1145 pages long and much of it is not pertinent to my current research, whether patristic or medieval, nor to my upcoming teaching in the Autumn (Latin epic and Latin verse epistolography in Autumn, and Theocritus and Greek Mythology in January).
My first thought is: What on earth students could use this as a textbook for a one-semester course on first millennium Christianity? Its 1145 pages are large with a typeface that, while not minuscule, is not large itself. Maybe students at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia are of a higher calibre than what I’ve experienced. Maybe McGuckin doesn’t actually intend you to use the whole book as a textbook; but he does intend it to be useable as a textbook.
That said, a certain amount of text is taken up by readings. So maybe it would work if you didn’t assign a separate book of readings.
In terms of coverage, it is geographically broad, but most interested in patristic and Byzantine things. Nonetheless, it does reach as far East as China and as far South as Ethiopia. There is a whole section devoted to churches outside the Latin-Greek spectrum that takes up most of the attention in church history books. The volume is divided into two sections, one that is a diachronic study of the story of the church and doctrine, whilst the other is an investigation of particular themes. McGuckin’s advice is to read part one in order but to intersperse the chapters from part two along the way, in whatever order you please.
I read a good chunk of Chapter 13 (pp. 763-789), and this chapter I recommend heartily: ‘The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Early Church’. He takes to task the modern approach to biblical studies, arguing that the ecclesial way of reading Scripture was prevalent amongst all Christians prior to the nineteenth century. I always like this kind of thing, because is the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, then there are legitimate ways of reading it other than ‘how I read any other ancient text’, and it will also legitimately speak to us in different ways.
It seems patently obvious to me.
That’s why I do Latin and Patristics, not Biblical Studies.
The first chapter is also very good. He gives good coverage of the early movements within the Christian movement, and I would feel comfortable giving it to my students to read. His central thrust here is that the second century is one of the most important for everything that follows, and I agree.
I did not agree with every chapter I dipped into, I must admit. I think there’s more to Leo the Great’s Tome than McGuckin acknowledges, but I think most people miss what’s going on because the issue is not whether Leo is in step with the times or any of that, but, rather, cross-linguistic theology done by a Latin and the actual semantics of natura vs. physis. But most people don’t think about Latin Christology this way, seeing, as here, it as simply a re-statement of Hilarius of Poitiers and Augustine full stop. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading what McGuckin has to say here.
Likewise, I wasn’t sold on his interpretation of the Pelagian debate as manufactured by Augustinians and not actually a thing. My own position in this debate tends more towards the East, but given how much energy was expended in the initial Pelagius-Caelestius end, and then against Julian of Aeclanum, and later amongst so-called ‘Semi-Pelagians’ and ‘Augustinians’, I think something was happening here. Why is it confined to the Latin West? I’m not going to be reductive about every East-West difference, but I do suspect that gratia is not charis.
My final similar lament is simply a matter of a different reading of evidence for the Acacian Schism. McGuckin takes the standard line that it was over the Henotikon, but it is evident to me, at least, that from Gelasius’ standpoint, visible in his letters at length, it was Acacius entering into communion with Peter Mongus that was at least as important, if not more so.
Some of the translations of primary texts in the readers accompanying each chapter were a bit stilted.
In all, if you have some time, read the bits that interest you. If you have more time, read all 1145 pages. If have a lot more time, add the appendices on top.
As I work through Justinian’s Against the Monophysites (trans. K. P. Wesche), I am interested in his approach to texts. Justinian lived in the age of the florilegium, the catena, the anthology. If you wanted to prove that tradition and historic theology were on your side, you furnished a chain of texts from authorities accepted by your own side and by your opponents to demonstrate the rightness of your position. This is something Leo the Great did in Ep. 165 to Emperor Leo, to which he appended a florilegium of patristic texts that he believed supported the argument for two-nature Christology.
Justinian seems to be aware that this tactic does not work anymore. In particular, it cannot work in debate with ‘Monophysites’, or, to be PC, ‘Miaphysites’.* Up to Leo, they and the Chalcedonians acknowledge the same body of ‘Fathers’ for interpreting Scripture and reasoning out theology. Both groups accept the ‘ecumenical’ councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus. Both groups accept Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Cyril of Alexandria as touchstones of historic orthodoxy in matters of the Trinity and Christology. They reject ‘Arianism’ (in all its pluriform realities), Apollinaris, Nestorius, and, in fact, Eutyches.
Each group, then, can wield its own set of quotations from the Fathers to prove its own case. It is not difficult to find Miaphysite quotations of Cyril, and two-nature quotations from the Cappadocians can be adduced on the other side.
Therefore, in this treatise, besides seeking to argue his case using logic and Scripture — both of which, like the Fathers, the Miaphysites use — Justinian devotes most of his time to exegeting the texts of the Fathers held in common by both sides. He does not simply say, ‘Look, this text from Cyril teaches two natures,’ but, rather, explains how it does so.
I do not know if it convinced his recipients. Certainly, the intensive activity of so-called ‘Neo-Chalcedonians’ during his reign, including the long disputation that ended in 536 and the condemnation of the ‘Three Chapters’, as well as various individual theologians, failed to reconcile the Miaphysites at large, who set up their own parallel hierarchy to that of the imperially-sponsored church that accepted Chalcedon.
Nonetheless, the tactics seem to have changed somewhat in the century since Leo the Great. It is noteworthy, I think.
*The word miaphysite makes no sense, since it is etymologically impossible and denotatively means the same thing as monophysite. Mia is the feminine form of the Greek word for one, and not a prefix. Mono- is the Greek prefix derived from the word for one. However, since there are people of this belief system still alive, and they prefer miaphysite, I use it but in protest against Sebastian Brock (a dangerous thing to do; I promise never to argue with him about Syriac ;)).
I am at present reading Justinian’s Letter to the Monks of Alexandria Against the Monophysites. As I read, many questions arise: Did Justinian himself write this? When did he have time? Did he ever sleep? If he didn’t, who did? How was this text received? How would Leo the Great have felt about this text? What about Cyril of Alexandria?
Leo the Great (d. 461) would probably have been fine with this work. I am not sure Cyril (d. 444) would have been, however. This is an interesting reality of our theological tradition. Many people, even within the church, have an idea that theological orthodoxy is monolithic. It is not. Leo the Great did what he could with what of Cyril he had in Latin — not all of Cyril, and Latin is not Greek. So Leo’s Christology is not the same as Cyril’s.
For example, I do not think Leo’s Tome and Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ are actually perfectly compatible.
Yet Leo’s Tome was acclaimed and accepted at the Council of Chalcedon (that he helped engineer) in 451 on the grounds that it said what Cyril says. Which, if we consider the Cyril of the letter of reconciliation with John of Antioch Laetentur Caeli, I suppose it is. Both of these fifth-century bishops are accepted as authoritative by the imperial church and are regarded as Fathers of the Church by modern Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, and non-heretical Protestant churches.
But their entire corpora are not entirely compatible, despite what Justinian tries in his reading of Cyril as a supporter of two-nature Christology.
Moving forward a couple of centuries, what about Maximus the Confessor (d. 662)? Again, I am not sure that the Cyril of On the Unity of Christ and some of Maximus’s arguments about the operation of Christ’s two wills in the Garden of Gethsemane are perfectly compatible.
Moving beyond christology, Augustine (d. 430), who is actually considered a saint by the eastern churches, teaches a dual procession of the Holy Spirit, that even Maximus agreed to in a way, although its offspring, the filioque in the creed, is a major point of division between the eastern and western churches. Yet here they stand, part of orthodox (note the lower-case O) tradition.
Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) taught the Apocatastasis, the idea that all will be saved (patristic universalism). He is considered a Father in both East and West, although many reject this teaching. The ecumenically popular Isaac the Syrian (seventh century) also taught this.
Western accounts of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity tend to start with the doctrine of God and His unity; in the East, they tend to start with the persons and the threeness. This is a generalisation, but it does tend towards a different feel and different emphases in our presentations of dogma. Yet these presentations, whether by Augustine or Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390), are all orthodox though they differ.
Or consider the fact that our tradition includes alleged ‘Semi-Pelagians’ as saints (Faustus of Riez) alongside Augustinians like Prosper of Aquitaine.
Theological orthodoxy is not monolithic. Many other very specific cases could be found, but these will do. It is worth keeping these realities in mind as we ponder the great richness of the tradition that has brought us to where we stand today.
One of the beautiful doctrines of the ancient church is the communicatio idiomatum, the teaching that everything about Christ’s divinity can be stated about his humanity and vice versa. It leads to startling statements like, ‘One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us!’ Philosophically, it is a means of maintaining the unity of Christ in light of the fullness of his humanity and the fullness of his divinity.
The doctrine is important because of the fact that Jesus is affirmed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 as possessing two natures but in a single person. This language of two natures is a fifth-century development, and it took a couple of centuries until St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) fleshed it out beautifully and magnificently after St Leo the Great’s use of such language in 448 had already rent the fabric of the church in two.
Nevertheless, there are hints of Leo’s insight already in the late fourth century. Thus St Gregory of Nazianzus (320-390):
Everything glorious in Scripture concerning the Son, you should apply to His Deity, that nature in Him which is non-physical, far above sufferings; everything lowly in Scripture concerning the Son, you should apply to His condition as the God who took our nature upon Him, humbling Himself for your sakes and was incarnate (we may as well sake ‘became Man’), and afterwards was glorified. (Third Theological Oration, 17, trans. Nick Needham, Daily Readings: The Early Church Fathers, 12 March)
St Gregory, however, is a bit subtler than Leo’s Tome. St Leo straightforwardly says that the humanity suffered, the divinity wrought miracles. St Gregory, on the other hand, posits everything about the humanity still to the divinity — in His incarnation as a human. And remember, St Gregory of Nazianzus is he who wrote, ‘What has not been assumed has not been saved,’ demonstrating that he believes in the fullness of Christ’s humanity.
I. All share in the joy of Christmas.
Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fulness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered through that (nature) which he had conquered. And in this conflict undertaken for us, the fight was fought on great and wondrous principles of fairness; for the Almighty Lord enters the lists with His savage foe not in His own majesty but in our humility, opposing him with the same form and the same nature, which shares indeed our mortality, though it is free from all sin. Truly foreign to this nativity is that which we read of all others, “no one is clean from stain, not even the infant who has lived but one day upon earth.” (Job 19:4) Nothing therefore of the lust of the flesh has passed into that peerless nativity, nothing of the law of sin has entered. A royal Virgin of the stem of David is chosen, to be impregnated with the sacred seed and to conceive the Divinely-human offspring in mind first and then in body. And lest in ignorance of the heavenly counsel she should tremble at so strange a result, she learns from converse with the angel that what is to be wrought in her is of the Holy Ghost. Nor does she believe it loss of honour that she is soon to be the Mother of God. For why should she be in despair over the novelty of such conception, to whom the power of the most High has promised to effect it. Her implicit faith is confirmed also by the attestation of a precursory miracle, and Elizabeth receives unexpected fertility: in order that there might be no doubt that He who had given conception to the barren, would give it even to a virgin.
II. The mystery of the Incarnation is a fitting theme for joy both to angels and to men.
Therefore the Word of God, Himself God, the Son of God who “in the beginning was with God,” through whom “all things were made” and “without” whom “was nothing made,” (John 1:1-3) with the purpose of delivering man from eternal death, became man: so bending Himself to take on Him our humility without decrease in His own majesty, that remaining what He was and assuming what He was not, He might unite the true form of a slave to that form in which He is equal to God the Father, and join both natures together by such a compact that the lower should not be swallowed up in its exaltation nor the higher impaired by its new associate. Without detriment therefore to the properties of either substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt, belonging to our condition, inviolable nature was united with passible nature, and true God and true man were combined to form one Lord, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and rise again with the other.
Rightly therefore did the birth of our Salvation impart no corruption to the Virgin’s purity, because the bearing of the Truth was the keeping of honour. Such then beloved was the nativity which became the Power of God and the Wisdom of God even Christ, whereby He might be one with us in manhood and surpass us in Godhead. For unless He were true God, He would not bring us a remedy, unless He were true Man, He would not give us an example. Therefore the exulting angel’s song when the Lord was born is this, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and their message, “peace on earth to men of good will.” (Luke 2:14) For they see that the heavenly Jerusalem is being built up out of all the nations of the world: and over that indescribable work of the Divine love how ought the humbleness of men to rejoice, when the joy of the lofty angels is so great?
III. Christians then must live worthily of Christ their Head.
Let us then, dearly beloved, give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit, Who “for His great mercy, wherewith He has loved us,” has had pity on us: and “when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together in Christ,” (Eph. 2:4-5) that we might be in Him a new creation and a new production. Let us put off then the old man with his deeds: and having obtained a share in the birth of Christ let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, acknowledge thy dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which thou art a member. Recollect that thou wert rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God’s light and kingdom. By the mystery of Baptism thou wert made the temple of the Holy Ghost: do not put such a denizen to flight from thee by base acts, and subject thyself once more to the devil’s thraldom: because thy purchase money is the blood of Christ, because He shall judge thee in truth Who ransomed thee in mercy, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
Translation from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Volume 12
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