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The Trinity, Two Formulations

Yesterday, I heard St. Augustine’s formulation of the Trinity. He gives it as a series of logical propositions as follows:

  1. The Father is God
  2. The Son is God
  3. The Holy Spirit is God
  4. The Father is not the Son
  5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit
  6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father
  7. There is only one God

A few thing stuck out at me about this.

First, the person presenting the propositions gave it because he wanted to give an explanation of the Trinity which was easier to undersand than the Nicene Creed. It’s clearer because it doesn’t delve into 3 in 1 or 1 in 3 mumbo jumbo. In fact, the word “three” is never used in Augustine’s formulation.

Second, this explanation of the Trinity is framed in terms of logical propositions, rather than in an ontological description. The Nicene Creed contains a lot of ontological statements about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A lot of the terminology in Greek is actually highly technical, it speaks of essences and hypostasis. No one uses hypostasis in everyday conversation, and how we use the word “essence” is different than how it was used at the time. In fact, if you don’t have a good grasp of philosophical terminology which was in use at the time, you are going to misunderstand or fail to understand the Nicene Creed. The propositions of Augustine do not use technical language no longer in vogue. In fact, if you take an introduction to logic course at any college or university you will analyze a large number of arguments that consist of a series of logical propositions. Because of this I think Augustine’s explanation is much more easy for modern readers to grasp.

As an aside, I don’t fault the writers of the Nicene Creed for reaching into technical philosophical jargon of the time to explain God. Any culture has a limited cultural and linguistic context with which to describe reality. So when they reached for philosophy they were not polluting Christianity with philosophy, but rather explaining Christianity in ways they could understand. We do the same thing, but instead of using concepts and terms from ancient philosophy we tend to use concepts drawn from modern science and philosophy to explain God. You can’t say that we explain God simply and naturally; it’s only simple and natural to you because your cultural and linguistic context is what it is.

Finally, as a Mormon there wasn’t a single proposition with which I disagreed. Of course, I am open to being shown where I am incorrect. However, let’s assume that I am correct and that Mormons can subscribe to each of the seven propositions. If Mormons and orthodox Christians can agree on a logical formulation of God what does that mean? Pres. Hinckley said that Mormons don’t agree with the Nicene Creed, which means that we don’t agree with the ontological formulation of the nature of God. But then, what does it mean that orthodox Christians and Mormons agree on a logical formulation of the nature of God but not on an ontological formulation of the nature of God when both are valid formulations of the nature of God?

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    Mostly for the reasons you state, Augustine’s notion of the Trinity is famously not orthodox.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    I disagree with the logical steps as presented here. To be logical in relation to the Trinity number 7 would have to be number one. Then, there would have to be a number 8, although I am not sure what that would be. The only thing I could come up with as a logical conclusion is “therefore, there is no Christian G-d.”

    If this actually follows St. Augustine’s formulation of the Trinity then I call B.S. for the conclusion. The number 7 has no connection to the first six. It is just a statement. It is similar to saying 1+1 is 2, 2+2 is 4, 4+4 is 8; 1 is number one!

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    Augustine is not giving an argument about God, but just a series of propositions about God. Hence, there is no conclusion to critique.

    When I said that people see these kinds of logical propositions in arguments I should have made it more clear that Augustine was not making an argument. It’s the form of Augustine’s propositions that is familiar in logic classes, not the fact that they constitute an argument (which they don’t).

  • http://smallsimple.wordpress.com/ Eric Nielson

    OK, I’ll bite. I would change it thus:

    The Father is a God
    The Son is a God
    The Holy Spirit is a God
    The Father is not the Son
    The Son is not the Holy Spirit
    The Holy Spirit is not the Father
    There is only one God (for practical purposes)

    Or something to that affect.

    If I may be so bold as to provide a link to Elder Hollands recent conference talk here

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    Eric,

    The changes don’t work for me but I suspect many LDS will agree with your changes.

    I find the money quote in the Holland article, “We declare it is self-evident from the scriptures that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are separate persons, three divine beings,” very interesting.

    Why does the article use the term “self-evident”? Because that’s a natural term and form of explaining something ever since John Locke (if I remember correctly). But it started off as being a more technical philosophical term. That was my point about why the framers of the Nicene creed reached for technical philosophical terms, what else could they do?

    Also, calling the members of the Godhead “persons” is also interesting. “Person” comes from the Latin “persona” which originally meant mask. When the early church fathers needed to translate “hypostasis” into Latin they used “persona.” I find it interesting that our doctrine of the Trinity directly mirrors the linguistic drift that occurred.

  • http://www.google.com Tom Rod

    Assumption 7 is lacking. The definition of “God” in this context means…

    If it means that there is only one all-powerful being that we have anything to do with, then #7 is wrong.

    If it means one Godhead, then #7 is correct.

    If it means the being or essence that may be referred to as a God, then it is incorrect. Recall Joseph Smith’s lecture on Genesis 1:1 — The head God called forth the Gods…

    etc.

  • Chris H.

    What about Elaine Pagels argument: The Holy Spirit is the Mother? (While I am not a bible scholar, I have picked up a few things in feminist studies)

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    “Augustine is not giving an argument about God, but just a series of propositions about God”

    “He gives it as a series of logical propositions as follow”

    I am working off of the word “logical” in the post’s description. If it is just a series of propositions, then I agree with what you are saying. Then, I would simply not agree with St. Augustine and have nothing more to say on the subject.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    In the end, I am not really sure that this version of Augustine’s Trinitarian doctrine does anything to solve any of the issues at stake in trinitarian debates. Primarily, this formula says nothing about the central problem of the trinity: in what way are the Father, Son, and Spirit “one”? This is the source of the homoousion/homoiousian controversy around Nicea. As noted above by Jettboy, the formula is logically inconsistent primarily because it doesn’t define “God” and in what way God “is” something.
    I should also note that the “person” language comes out of Chalcedon mostly as a way of explaining Christ’s two natures, not originally to explain the relationship between Father, Son, Spirit.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    What about Elaine Pagels argument: The Holy Spirit is the Mother?

    I don’t know much about what justification Pagels uses to arrive at that conclusion, perhaps someone more enlightened can help out.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    In the end, I am not really sure that this version of Augustine’s Trinitarian doctrine does anything to solve any of the issues at stake in trinitarian debates.

    It doesn’t. I thought it interesting that Augustine seems to side step the ontological issues and focus on the logical relationships. It seemed that both Mormons and orthodox Christians could agree on St. Augustine’s formulation, precisely because it does side step the ontological issues.

    This is more in keeping with recent philosophy. Philosophers (both analytical and continental) take a dim view of trying to answer rigorously these types of ontological issues, but ancient philosophers would have been much more optimistic about doing this. Augustine’s formulation seems both more modern and more ecumenical, which is why I liked it. As for the logical inconsistency part, let’s just say theologians aren’t afraid of a little inconsistency under the rubric of “mystery” from time to time.

    As for the Chalcedon part, you are correct, my apologies. Also in #5, the whole issue of translation is much more open to debate and confusion than I let on, so the last paragraph in #5 may be pure crap. The point I was trying to make is that we tend to think that the plain meaning of certain modern English words “proves” that Mormons are correct in the trinitarian debates, but when you step back and look at the context the only thing that we prove is that we are 21st century English language speakers.

  • clarkgoble

    Eric, as I mentioned in the other Trinity discussion I think Elder Holland is assuming something about “substance” in the Nicene creed that isn’t the case. I don’t think he’s arguing for the nominalistic view of the Godhead popularized by Elder McConkie. I could be wrong, but if so then that would be a fairly significant doctrinal statement by Elder Holland. I doubt he’d present it as an offhand statement.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com Mogget

    #7 Mother

    Pagels works with Gnostic literature. For example, the Apocryphon of John expresses the trinitarian mystery like this:

    “He said to me, `John, Jo[h]n, why do you doubt, and why are you afraid? . . . I am the one who [is with you] always. I [am the Father]; I am the Mother; I am the Son.”

    In Greek, the word for “spirit” is neuter. In Hebrew, however, it is feminine. So if it’s not the Father and not the Son, it’s gotta be “feminine” and hence “mother.”

    Or something like that…

    Mogs

  • clarkgoble

    To add, Joseph’s comments in the Sermon at the Temple tend to also be arguing against a strawman and follow a similar construction to Elder Holland’s. The problem is that the Trinity really isn’t three people making up a single super-being. Indeed the Trinitarians will often say the term being is only applicable to creatures. So it is supposed to be something unique and different. Three persons in one God and one God in three persons. But it simply isn’t not an additive relationship the way some take it. Likewise translating ousia as substance is misleading as its not a substance the way we think of substances in our modern world. It’s more akin to (but not exactly the same as) Platonic substances.

    If you think of substances not as immaterial substantial forms but instead as atoms or other kinds of matter then the Trinity will never make any sense. You’ll typically end up confusing it with modalism or something similar.

    David is completely right that there’s a lot of technical terminology here. I’m not saying the Trinitarian view is correct. The nominalistic view favored by Bruce R. McConkie and others is a perfectly valid reading of scripture. I am saying that the Trinity proper really isn’t incompatible with LDS theology.

  • clarkgoble

    Mogs, I’ve not read Pagels, but I’ll lay good odds she brings up the feminine in Kabbalah/Merkabah literature as well as the role of the feminine in Wisdom speculation as well.

  • http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com Clean Cut

    Eric, I wonder if you’ve ever personally been accused of “polytheism” for saying that the Father is “a” God, the Son is “a” God, the Holy Spirit is “a” God, and if so, how did you explain yourself?

    Clark, I’m still unclear about what you feel is false about Elder Holland’s assumption that Trinitarians believe that the three distinct persons of the Godhead are one “substance”. (“Substance” seems more appropriate than “being”, considering how they do not believe that they all share a physical body.)

  • larryco_

    “This is the source of the homoousion/homoiousian controversy…”

    TT brings up an interesting aside. Since LDS believe that all beings are made up of individual intelligence(s)(see D&C 93, 88, 84, and 130 on the whole spirit/light/intelligence/matter stuff), then , in essence, we believe that God the Father and Jesus are “of the same substance” as one another in the sense of their personal makeup. But we only believe that Jesus and the Father are one in the sense that it is used in John 17:20-22, with Jesus’s desire that his disciples would be one with He and the Father in purpose and glory.

    Since we also believe that the spirits mankind and angels (both the good kind and the fallen kind) are made of the same substance, I’m not sure where we would fall on the controversy. Maybe on the same side that we fall in the “how many angels can stand on the head of a pin” controversy.

    As far as the rest, Joseph Smith was pretty clear in his Nauvoo teachings that there is not “only one God.” We cling strongly to the Judeo-Christian attempt at mono-theism, but as Kevin Barney points out in this month’s Dialogue Magazine, it really has never been that way in either Jewish or Christian history.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    Clean Cut and Eric,

    There is a very good reason for Augustine not saying that “The Father is a God.” He had no way of saying it. Latin has neither indefinite articles (“a” and “an”) nor does it have definite articles (“the”). Hence “Father is God” is the only way you can say it in Latin, which is what Augustine spoke and wrote. You have to put the “the” in so that it is grammatically correct in English. The “a” can be inserted or deleted on similar grounds. My point is that putting those words in is linguistically, not ontologically driven.

    See how linguistically bound theological positions can be?

  • http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com Clean Cut

    Clark, I’m even having a hard time trying to understand the Triune God as one “immaterial substantial form”. As a human being, where all persons are their own beings, and being raised LDS, I fear I’m at a serious disadvantage in trying to understand how three distinct persons are ontologically one. I just can’t grasp it.

  • http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com Clean Cut

    Good point David. They’re bound in more ways than just linguistically, but also by their assumption that because of creatio ex nihilo, the Creator will always be separate from the created, and therefore there can only be one God.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    being raised LDS, I fear I’m at a serious disadvantage in trying to understand how three distinct persons are ontologically one. I just can’t grasp it.

    No one ever really understands quantum mechanics (at the level of intuition), yet it still governs all of physical reality.

  • clarkgoble

    Larryco: Since LDS believe that all beings are made up of individual intelligence(s)

    Technically that was an innovation from B.H. Roberts introduced in his article “The Immortality of Man”. It’s not clear that it is LDS theology that we are made up of individual intelligences. I don’t think Brigham Young believed that. And the last 20 years as people have read original source documents closer there’s a common view that it wasn’t Joseph Smith’s view either. (I quibble a little there but won’t get into that tangent) That is JS treated spirit and intelligence as synonyms but didn’t address what they were made out of beyond the nebulous “it’s all matter” of D&C 131.

    Larryco: As far as the rest, Joseph Smith was pretty clear in his Nauvoo teachings that there is not “only one God.”

    But even there one has to be careful since he’s clearly talking about the persons. That is his opposition is a particular view. While many point to the Lecture at the Temple I mentioned in defense of a nominalistic view (i.e. all the persons share are common thoughts) I don’t think one can really say Joseph necessarily held a nominalistic view of the unity of God. Certainly in terms of terminology though he tended to use the word God to refer to a person rather than the unity. But we do that today as well (preferring the term Godhead for the unity)

    By and large we don’t focus much on the unity of God. Which is understandable. But I guess what I’m saying is we should assume there’s nothing to that unity beyond common thoughts. There are pretty good reasons to think otherwise. (Although none are a slam dunk case by any stretch of the imagination)

    Clean Cut: I’m even having a hard time trying to understand the Triune God as one “immaterial substantial form”

    Technically it’s even more complex than that. But really unless you know the philosophical and political history of the formulation you won’t be able to understand. There’s just too much context that is necessary for the understanding. At a minimum one has to understand neoPlatonism. Once you get to the more mature view I think you kind of have to understand certain medieval views and arguments as well (such as Duns Scotus).

    As David notes, the fact something is difficult to understand really isn’t a terribly good argument against it.

  • clarkgoble

    Larryco: Since LDS believe that all beings are made up of individual intelligence(s)

    Actually let me take back that comment I made somewhat. The modern LDS view comes out of that B. H. Roberts view. However clearly Orson Pratt held we were made up of intelligences as well although in a more complex way. (For Pratt every atom was an intelligence)

  • http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com Clean Cut

    “As David notes, the fact something is difficult to understand really isn’t a terribly good argument against it.”

    True, but on my level of intuition, God would not be a god of confusion, and he would speak according to OUR language so that we could understand. Doesn’t make any sense that in all the history of the world, we would need Plato to truly and properly understand the nature of God.

  • clarkgoble

    But if something is complex then there is no way to speak in a simple easy to understand fashion. If God spoke to you about Quantum Mechanics then he’d be limited by the fact QM is hard to understand. If the unity of God is hard to understand then perhaps the fact God didn’t explain the unity is precisely because it is hard to understand.

    So I guess the claim that God speaks simply seems way misapplied. If you disagree I’ve got a few passages from D&C 93 perhaps you could clarify for me…

  • clarkgoble

    (And let’s not forget Ezekiel’s vision of the temple!)

  • http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com Clean Cut

    Clark, I actually am right with you in understanding this–that complex things are not easily explained. But it’s not my position that the unity of God is hard to explain. And it’s definitely not my position that the three persons of the Godhead are ontologically one. But you’re right that even though ontological oneness is hard for me (and most people) to understand, it doesn’t necessarily prove it’s not correct. As you point out, there are things in our own faith that cannot be easily explained, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not true.

    I guess I’m just saying that if I were God, I wouldn’t make something of such importance as understanding the nature of God first require that my children understand Plato OR quantum mechanics.

    Having said that, and preferring the Latter-day Saint understanding of the nature of God, I still seek to better understand the concept of the Triune God as my Christian neighbors understand it. I can’t imagine not being completely satisfied with my knowledge or understanding about the something so essential as the nature of God. Yet most traditional Christians seem more comfortable describing what the Trinity is NOT (ie: not modalism) rather than what the Trinity is.

    Furthermore, how can the created body of Jesus be a part of the uncreated Triune God?

  • clarkgoble

    I guess my answer is that I’m not convinced that understanding the unity of God is of prime importance. (I don’t think it’s terribly important at all beyond recognizing there is some unity) Secondly I don’t think God made the unity. I think the big plus of rejecting creation ex nihilo is that we don’t make God responsible for everything.

  • clarkgoble

    To add, one big problem I have with traditional forms of Christianity is that they seem pretty focused on things that to me are pretty unimportant. Sort of falling into Nephi’s “looking beyond the mark” or missing the plain and precious truths.

    But just as Nephi could figure out difficult forms of Jewish prophecy most can’t make heads nor tails out of I think we can understand the traditional theology of the Trinity. The question of whether Mormonism is incompatible with it depends upon how you view Mormon theology. (i.e. there’s not an official answer to many things such as the unity of God)

    That some non-Mormons see us as non-Christian because of this expansion attempting to understand the unity always struck me as silly. Both because of the focus on it as important but also the misunderstanding that there is official LDS teaching that contradicts it. Creation ex nihilo, sure. But the Trinity?

  • anon

    1. The Father is God
    2. The Son is God
    3. The Holy Spirit is God
    4. The Father is not the Son
    5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit
    6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father
    7. There is only one God

    F=G; S=G; H=G; F!=S; S!=H; H!=F (what’s the math for #7)
    if #1(F=G) and #2(S=G) and #3(H=G) are true then F=S=H
    If F=S=H then #4, #5, and #6 are false.

  • clarkgoble

    That was Richard Cartwright’s argument in “On the Logical Problem of the Trinity”. However that’s partially due to some erroneous understandings of the God and more particularly Platonic logic. Or, put an other way, the word “is” is the question of being. And Cartwright is making an assumption in terms of the modern analytic philosophical conception of being that Trinitarians don’t share.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    The math for #7 would be something like

    Ex(P(x,g) and ~Ey(P(y,g) and y != x))

    Where P(n,g) is the proposition “n is g”, where g is God. E is the existential quantifier (my keyboard lacks a backwards E, it’s defective). But, quantificational logic wasn’t invented until long after Augustine was pushing daisies, so it wouldn’t have occurred to him to notate it that way.

    In any case, I never claimed that they were all logically consistent. I just wouldn’t know which one to throw out.

  • larryco_

    “complex things are not easily explained”

    But Why? (I ask no one in particular) As ya’ll know, the reason we send out missionaries, and have gone there ourselves, is to bring “simple truths”, learned in the sacred grove, to the masses. No councils, no formulas, no creeds; just eye-witness accounts of the Godhead. Why are we still so unsure? Why am I? Beginning with Tom Alexander’s article in Sunstone two decades + ago (entitled something like “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine”), I have struggled to get a handle on the Godhead, which basically was the theophany from Palmyra. This should be easier.

  • http://smallsimple.wordpress.com/ Eric Nielson

    Clean Cut (16)

    Mormons get accused of being polytheistic all the time. Personally I think the critics have a point. To me we are at least tri-theistic, as a technicality. Some will disagree with this, but I view Mormonism as technically polytheistic and functionally monotheistic (if I am using the words right.)

  • clarkgoble

    There is no single official doctrine explaining the Mormon conception of the Godhead. Rather there are numerous different theories and the only official statement is that there is no answer.

    Personally I’m more sympathetic to a Trinitarian conception expanded with an infinite regress of Gods ala the traditional reading of the KFD. Blake Ostler has what he calls monarchial monotheism. There are lots of other views.

  • http://heartissuesforlds.wordpress.com Todd Wood

    Nice topic

    Think of this expansion on the ending proposition:

    There is only one God, and God simply knows no other.

  • clarkgoble

    Just to clarify my #31.

    Consider the following that is logically the same as “anon”‘s in 30.

    1. Bill Clinton is President
    2. George Bush is President
    3. Barrack Obama is President
    4. Obama is Bush
    5. Bush is not Clinton
    6. Obama is not Clinton
    7. There is only one President

    Now the objection will be the time element but you get the point. One has to unpack what “is” entails in these propositions.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com SmallAxe

    Clark,

    The nation’s going to be quite surprised about #4.

  • clarkgoble

    Whoops. Is not. (dang I shouldn’t type while in a hurry)

  • Blake

    David: Throw out premise 7 because it false. There is more than one divine person; there are as many gods as there are divine persons, there cannot be fewer gods than there are divine persons. There is only one Godhead consisting of the divine persons of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. When it is asserted that “The Father is God” it functions as an identity statement. When it is asserted that “there is only one God” it is a constitution statement such that there is only one God in the sense of one will, one divine knowledge, one sovereign power exercised in unity by the divine persons.

    Of course when the OT asserts that there is only one Yahweh, that is not inconsistent with there being more than one God. If we take Yahweh as the one God, then we must admit that more than one divine being can appear under the designation Yahweh, like the angel of Yahweh who appears just as Yahweh bearing the divine name.

  • Blake

    BTW Clark, I’ve written an entire book on this issue. When are you going to get around to it?

  • clarkgoble

    Guaging by my days not until after Christmas. I have been carrying your book in my computer case everywhere just waiting until I have 3 contiguous hours to write on it…

  • http://heartissuesforlds.wordpress.com Todd Wood

    #40 oh, no you don’t

    and are you going to send your last book to me as a Christmas present, Blake?

    (chuckling)

  • Blake

    Give me your address Todd and it’s yours!

  • http://heartissuesforlds.wordpress.com Todd Wood

    1671 Brenthaven St.
    Idaho Falls, Idaho 83402

    Of course, you know I won’t be able to sit quiet while I read it. :) I will let you know my thoughts.

    (I can hardly sit still, tonight, reading Kevin Barney’s article on “How to worship our Heavenly Mother” from the link in the Dialogue webpage.)

  • Blake

    Todd: I know, I had a hard time sitting quiet for that one too. It’s coming your way.

  • http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com Clean Cut

    Blake, what’s the name of the book?

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    David: Throw out premise 7 because it false. There is more than one divine person; there are as many gods as there are divine persons, there cannot be fewer gods than there are divine persons. There is only one Godhead consisting of the divine persons of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. When it is asserted that “The Father is God” it functions as an identity statement. When it is asserted that “there is only one God” it is a constitution statement such that there is only one God in the sense of one will, one divine knowledge, one sovereign power exercised in unity by the divine persons.

    Blake,

    I’ll have to think it over. However, I do have to admit to chuckling while reading it. That paragraph looks like something out of one of the early church councils, but written using the jargon of analytic philosophy. I’m not chuckling at you by the way, simply at the hilarity of human limitations.

  • clarkgoble

    Now that’s funny David!

  • http://www.mormonconferences.org Kent (MC)

    Clean Cut, go to BlakeOstler.com and you will see his books. Blake is referring to his 3rd book, “Of God and Gods”.

  • Blake

    I knew there was something I like about those darn councils!

  • LiberalSlayer

    Eric Nielson #32.
    Polytheism implies many Gods who compete with one another for supreme rulership. The LDS viewpoint is not polytheistic by our own admission or by any “reasonably” educated scholars of us. Even those with serious reservations against Mormonism would call us henotheistic, but I still don’t think this is descriptive enough. We are defintely a form of social trinitarianism, where there is multiplicity in the form of unity, but certainly not of essence or substance (as traditional Christianity asserts). Let us not forget the context of much of the KFD, Joseph was fighting against modalism, not abandoning the wording of the BoM.

  • clarkgoble

    I don’t think polytheism entails that at all. Lots of polytheistic systems have a head god who’s rule is absolute.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    Yes, polytheism doesn’t entail that at all. Late Greco-Roman writers start talking about “God” when they clearly believe in multiple gods, i.e. one is in charge. Yet, they were not henotheists, oddly enough.

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