A Study of the Doctrines
Part Nine: "... And in the Holy Spirit ..."
by Jared L. Olar
Having reviewed the first two doctrinal articles of the Apostles' Creed, on God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, we turn now to the third article of the Apostles' Creed, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. In exploring this doctrinal article and the things that the Worldwide Church of God has taught about the Holy Spirit, we shall see that this is an area of theology in which the WCG has undergone major, significant, and greatly consequential and beneficial changes and reforms.
Throughout much of its existence, the WCG held to doctrines about God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit that were at odds with the doctrines of the overwhelming majority of Christian groups throughout history. Most Christians have believed that God is a Trinity, that is, a "tri-unity" of Divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-but the WCG formerly believed that the doctrine of the Trinity was a false, satanic doctrine. Renouncing and condemning Trinitarian doctrine, the WCG instead promulgated the claim that God is a "family" made up of two separate divine Beings, the Father and the Son, who share a power, the Holy Spirit, by which they created and continue to uphold and govern the universe. According to the WCG at that time, the Holy Spirit was not God, was neither a divine Person nor a divine Being, but was instead the power and "life-force" or essence of God. The indwelling of that power is what makes someone a true Christian, we believed. The WCG conceived of the Holy Spirit as something, not someone-an impersonal tool or "energy" or power. We believed that by the power of His Spirit, the Father transforms human beings into His children, who are, so we thought, destined to become new sons in the God Family through the resurrection of the dead at the second coming of Christ. In the WCG's former doctrine, these children of God would be "God as God is God."
Unfortunately, the WCG's old doctrine amounted to a form of polytheism. While it was intended that the biblical doctrine of the oneness of God would be safeguarded by saying that there are now two "God Beings" who are members of a single God Family, in fact the doctrine taught that the Father and the Son are two separate God Beings. That is, they were not a single divine being, which means they were two separate Gods, destined to be joined by millions of other Gods. The WCG's "God Family" theology was erroneous and unbiblical, and had to be abandoned.
The WCG's Move to Trinitarianism
In Part Two of this series, we reviewed the process by which the WCG renounced its former theology in the 1990s and embraced traditional, orthodox Trinitarian theology. As we saw, in the first version of the WCG's "Statement of Beliefs" in 1991, the WCG made a tentative move towards Trinitarianism, saying, "The Church affirms the oneness of God and the full divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." To be sure, what the 1991 Statement of Beliefs said about God are things that are believed both by Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians. Although the WCG used to adamantly deny that the Holy Spirit is God or a Person of the Godhead, even so-depending on what one means by the words "full divinity"-even the WCG's former "God Family" theology could be said to uphold the full divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That is, a member of the WCG back then could probably agree that the Holy Spirit is something that is "fully divine."
Under the heading of "The Holy Spirit," the 1991 Statement of Beliefs of the WCG had this to say:
"The Holy Spirit is the Comforter promised by Jesus Christ, sent from God to the Church on the Day of Pentecost. God's Holy Spirit is the power that transforms man through repentance, baptism and continual renewal. The Holy Spirit is the source of inspiration and prophecy throughout the Scriptures, and the Christian's constant guide to all truth. (John 14:16, Acts 2:4, 17-19, 38, Titus 3:5, John 16:13)"
Again, these are things that can be affirmed both by Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians, but it is significant that this doctrinal statement did not say the Holy Spirit is God, or a Person or hypostasis of the Godhead. The central emphasis is on the Holy Spirit as a "power." Thus, this statement was halfway between, on the one hand, the WCG's former denial of the Holy Spirit's divinity and personhood, and on the other hand, a full affirmation of Trinitarian theology.
The WCG's 1993 Statement of Beliefs contains their first affirmation of Trinitarianism:
"The Holy Spirit is the Comforter promised by Jesus Christ, sent from God to the Church on the Day of Pentecost. As the third hypostasis of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit is fully divine, God in us, and the power that transforms humans through repentance, baptism, sanctification, and continual renewal. The Holy Spirit is the Source of inspiration and prophecy throughout the Scriptures, the Source of unity and communion in the Church, the Provider of gifts for salvation and the work of the gospel, and the Christian's constant Guide to all truth. (John 14:16; Acts 2:4, 17-19, 38; Matthew 28:19; John 14:17, 23; 1 Peter 1:2; Titus 3:5; 2 Peter 1:21; 1 Corinthians 12:13; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 Corinthians 12:8-11; Acts 20:28; John 16:13)"
This statement includes several important additions and changes, such as a reference to "sanctification" as one of the means by which the Spirit transforms humans. One also notes the statement's adoption of feminist "gender neutral" language-"humans" instead of "man." Significantly, a few key words were capitalised-"Source," "Provider," and "Guide." That capitalisation represents a change in the WCG's beliefs about the Holy Spirit, as we see in the most important addition to this statement. No more merely a "power," the Spirit is "the third hypostasis of the Godhead," "fully divine," and "God in us."
In this version of the WCG's Statement of Beliefs, we read that "God, by the testimony of Scripture, is one divine Being in three eternal, co-essential, yet distinct hypostases, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," language that replaces the original, ambiguous statement, "The Church affirms the oneness of God and the full divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." In Greek Christianity, "hypostasis" is the traditional theological term that is used where Western Christianity traditionally has used the term "Person." Thus, in this statement, the Holy Spirit is said to be God, but traditional Western Christianity vocabulary is avoided. The WCG had an aversion for traditional Christian shibboleths such as "cross," "Jesus," "saved," "born again," etc., so the choice of "hypostasis" rather than "Person" may be seen as a concession to that aversion. At the time, the leaders of the WCG claimed that "hypostasis" was to be preferred over "Person" as more precise and accurate and less misleading, and admittedly there was something to be said for that stance given the widespread theological illiteracy in modern Christianity.
But about two years later, soon after the death in 1995 of the WCG's second Pastor General, Joseph W. Tkach, Sr., the WCG made some unannounced and unexplained changes in their statements on God and the Holy Spirit, as we see here:
"God, by the testimony of Scripture, is one divine Being in three eternal, co-essential, yet distinct Persons-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. . . . .
"The Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Godhead, is the Comforter promised by Jesus Christ, sent from God to the Church. The Holy Spirit lives in us, transforming us through repentance, sanctification, and continual renewal. The Holy Spirit is the Source of inspiration and prophecy throughout the Scriptures, the Source of unity and communion in the Church, the Provider of gifts for salvation and for the work of the gospel, and the Christian's constant Guide into all truth. (John 14:16; Acts 2:4, 17-19, 38; Matthew 28:19; John 14:17, 23; 1 Peter 1:2; Titus 3:5; 2 Peter 1:21; 1 Corinthians 12:13; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 Corinthians 12:8-11; Acts 20:28; John 16:13)"
Notice that in this statement, the Holy Spirit is no longer a "power" at all. Another of the noteworthy changes in the 1995 version of the Statement of Beliefs is the deletion of "baptism" from the list of media through which the Holy Spirit transforms us. As we have previously observed in this series, a creed or confession is important not only for what it says and how it says it, but for what it does not say. Until 1995, the WCG had taught-in agreement with longstanding Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican-Episcopal, and Methodist belief-that at the moment of baptism, the Holy Spirit descends and spiritually washes away sin (cf. Acts 2:38, 22:16; Eph. 5:25-27). But in 1995 the WCG began to teach that the remission of a person's sins is accomplished by the Holy Spirit prior to and independently of baptism, and that baptism does not really remove sins, but is nothing more than a symbolic ritual that represents the fact that one is already saved. Hence the deletion of the word "baptism" from this article of the WCG's Statement of Beliefs. We will return to this subject in a future installment of this series.
The most important change in the 1995 Statement of Beliefs is that, here for the first time the WCG's Statement of Beliefs unequivocally affirms Trinitarian theology using the traditional Western term "Person." At the time of this important change, the WCG did not issue an announcement to its members that "hypostasis" would be dropped in favor of "Person," nor did the WCG immediately issue an explanation for the change. Indeed, the WCG's booklet God Is . . . had laid out a case for the superiority of the term "hypostasis" over "Person," and even the latest version of God Is . . . seems to prefer "hypostasis," while allowing that "Person" is acceptable if it is understood correctly. (See "One in Three and Three in One" at http://www.wcg.org/lit/God/godis5.htm.) Unfortunately, the WCG's literature does not really explain what the correct understanding of "Person" actually is when referring to God-quite strange for a Christian group that uses the term "Person" in its Statement of Beliefs. The WCG affirms that God is a "personal" God, but doesn't adequately address what that means.
Just What Do You Mean . . . "Person"?
In the 2000 edition of the WCG's booklet, God Is . . ., one can find a very brief, but unfortunately inaccurate, explanation of 1) how the word "Person" came to be used in Christian theological doctrine and 2) the problems that modern English-speakers can have in understanding the way "Person" is used in Trinitarian theology:
"The English word person is derived from the Latin word persona. The word persona was used by theologians to describe the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the Latin language, but it did not convey the same meaning as the English word person conveys today. It was a word originally used for a role that an actor portrayed in a play. It was also the word for `mask,' because actors wore different masks for each character they portrayed. But even this concept, though it does not allow the error of three Beings, is still weak and misleading when referring to God. It is misleading because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not mere roles being played by God, and because an actor can play only one role at a time, quite unlike God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all the time. Even though a Latin theologian may have understood what he meant when he used a word like persona, the average person would not. Likewise, the English word person is easily misunderstood by the average individual when referring to God, unless it is accompanied by an explanation that `Persons' in the Godhead should not be thought of in the same way as `persons' like any of us humans."
The problem with this explanation is that it isn't true. Through an unfortunate oversimplification, it misstates what the concept of persona actually was and is when Christians speak of God and men. Yes, persona originally meant a mask used by actors, but it was not applied to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in that sense. As time went on, persona acquired a new meaning, becoming a general term for "an individual." Later still, the Catholic philosopher Boethius circa 500 A.D. would state the classic definition of persona as "an individual substance of a rational nature." In other words, what makes something a "person" is ratio, reason-that is, the possession of an intellect and a will.
It was in that sense, and not the sense of an actor's mask, that Latin-speaking Christians began to use persona in reference to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Because we humans have intellects and wills, there is in fact a proper sense in which the Persons of the Godhead can and should be "thought of in the same way as `persons' like any of us humans." It must also be observed that we members of the WCG suffered from such theological illiteracy that we had no idea that by rejecting the term "Person" in reference not only to the Holy Spirit but also to the Father and the Son, we were in effect denying that the Father and the Son have an intellect and a will.
Now, it is true that persona is capable of being misunderstood in a way that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could be thought of as "mere roles being played by God." The idea that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mere roles or "modes" being played by God is a heresy known as Modalism or Sabellianism, and in fact for a while Eastern Christians objected to Western Christians' use of the term persona because they thought it was to be understood in a Sabellian sense. The reason for the misunderstanding is that the Greek equivalent of persona, the word prosopon, still meant "an actor's mask," and had not undergone any development as the Latin word persona had. When they heard Latin Christians speak of the "three Persons," they thought of "three masks" or "three roles," and concluded that the Latins were Sabellian heretics.
On the other hand, Latin Christians also misunderstood the Trinitarian language of their Greek-speaking brethren. Eastern Christians used a different term for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-the Greek word hypostasis, which Greek philosophers used to refer to "reality," especially an underlying reality, as distinct from "appearances." Thus, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were said to be three divine "realities." But just as prosopon and persona are cognates, so hypostasis and substantia are cognates. So trouble was bound to arise, because substantia ("substance," a philosophical term that signified being as existing in and by itself) carries with it the connotation or implication that it is something that is not merely distinct from other things, but is also separate from them. So when Latins heard Greeks talk of "three hypostases," they thought of "three separate beings," and concluded that the Greeks were espousing tritheism, belief in three separate Gods.
The way the mutual misunderstanding eventually was resolved is that the Greeks came to see that persona no longer meant what prosopon meant, and the Latins came to see that substantia was not in fact the equivalent of hypostasis. By applying the later sense of persona to their word prosopon, Greek Christians were able to accept that they could say "tria prosopa," "three persons," without implying anything remotely Sabellian. By seeing that the Greek word hypostasis should be rendered into Latin as subsistentia ("subsistence," a philosophical term signifying existence) rather than substantia, Latin Christians were able to avoid the unintentional suggestion that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate beings. After confusion and controversy, Eastern and Western Christians came to understand that hypostasis, prosopon, and persona were all acceptable terms for the three divine realities of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
A more detailed explanation of the definition and usage of
the term persona in Christian doctrine is beyond the scope of this
article, but it should be mentioned that over the centuries Christianity has
further refined and tightened the definition of persona in order to
avoid absurdity in the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity. Boethius' classic definition was inadequate to explain the
doctrine that Jesus is both God and
Another problem with the classic definition of persona is that it could apply to God's essence-for couldn't God be described as an individual substance of a rational nature? The problem is that if God's essence is a person, and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are persons, then we have three Divine Persons in one Divine Person, which is gibberish. However, in the doctrine of the Trinity, although God's essence subsists in and of itself, that essence does not exist apart from the three Persons of the Trinity, and therefore is not a person. Thus, in Trinitarian doctrine, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three Divine Persons who each fully possess the one Divine Essence, not three Divine Persons that are one Divine Person.
Is the Holy Spirit God?
As mentioned above, although the WCG has always taught that both the Father and the Son are God, it used to deny that the Holy Spirit is God, a doctrine that anciently was known as Pneumatomachianism, from a Greek word meaning "Those who fight the Spirit," and Macedonianism, from Macedonius, Archbishop of Constantinople during the mid-300s A.D., the first Christian whose name we know who insisted that the Father and the Son are God, but the Holy Spirit is not God. In opposition to the doctrine of the Macedonians, the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. reaffirmed the orthodox belief that the Holy Spirit is God. It is thanks to the Council of Constantinople that the original creedal formula, "I believe in the Holy Spirit," was expanded with words that explicitly affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, as follows:
"And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father; who together with the Father and the Son is no less adored and glorified; who spoke by the Prophets."
Each of these new clauses was based upon what various passages of the New Testament had to say about the Holy Spirit, beginning with Christ's inclusion of the Holy Spirit in the baptismal formula of Matt. 28:19. In II Cor. 3:17-18, St. Paul identified "the Spirit of the Lord" as "the Lord," and in II Cor. 3:6 he said that "the Spirit gives life" (cf. Gen. 2:7, where God's "breath" or Spirit brings Adam to life, and Psalm 104:30, where the Spirit appears as creator of life). In John 15:26, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter or Paraclete, "proceeds from the Father." In II Peter 1:21, St. Peter affirms that the Holy Spirit spoke through the Old Testament prophets. The clause "who spoke by the Prophets" forms a part of the edifice of the Christian doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Bible and the concomitant doctrine that the Bible is entirely free from error.
Then in II Cor. 13:14,
The scriptural passages cited above help to demonstrate that there is a biblical basis for the general doctrine of the Trinity and the particular doctrine that the Holy Spirit is God and not merely God's power. One of the reasons the WCG formerly rejected the Trinity and the Holy Spirit's personhood is that terms such as "Trinity" and "Person" and "Essence" are not used in the Bible in reference to God. It is true that Christian theology underwent a process of development until the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity was formulated and fixed, but that doesn't mean the doctrine is contrary to biblical teaching. Rather, it took time for Christians to find and agree upon terminology that affirms everything that the Bible says about God and that the Church had always believed about God.
Reasoning to the Trinity
In addition to the testimony of Holy Scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the doctrine of the divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit, can be logically deduced from what Scripture and reason tell us about God. To begin with, Scripture and reason tell us that there is only one God, who is the creator and source and sustainer of everything else that exists, and that He therefore has eternally existed, and therefore preexists everything that is made, even time itself. Therefore God is Pure Existence - He does not need anything beyond Himself. He is infinite and perfect.
Scripture also tells us that God is love. Even prior to creating time and space, when there was nothing but God, who needed nothing beyond Himself, God is love. But that raises the question of who the object of His love might be prior to the creation of the universe. To answer that question, we must consider what it means to be infinite and perfect. Briefly, the most basic kind of perfection is existence. It is more perfect to have the reality of perfection than to merely contemplate the idea of perfection. That which exists is more perfect than something that potentially could exist. In other words, existence is more perfect than nonexistence.
Now, according to Scripture and reason, God the Father is omniscient and eternal, which means He has perfect knowledge, and has always had perfect knowledge. That means He has always had a perfect knowledge of Himself. But because God is Pure Existence, and existence is more perfect than nonexistence, it follows that God the Father's perfect self-knowledge must have its own existence: the Logos or Word, God the Son, who is the Father's perfect self-knowledge. Because the Son is everything that the Father knows about Himself, the Father must give the Son everything that He is-the Father pours Himself out completely into the Son, holding nothing of Himself back, including His divinity.
According to John 5:19-23, whatever the Son sees the Father do, the Son Himself does also. That means that, just as the Father makes a total gift of Himself to the Son, so the Son also pours Himself out into the Father completely, holding nothing of Himself back. This is called "the exchange of Persons," and because it is a divine exchange, that means the exchange of Persons is perfect and infinite.
But if the exchange of Persons is infinitely perfect, then this mutual loving exchange must have its own existence as well, which means it is a third Divine Person-the Holy Spirit, God's "life breath," which is perfect love. Just as the Word is eternally "uttered" by the Father (that is, the Son is eternally "begotten" by the Father), so the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father to the Son, who in turn eternally "breathes" the Father's loving Breath back to Him. Because the Holy Spirit is perfect love, that means He completely pours Himself out to the Father and to the Son.
These interrelationships of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all that distinguish them from each other-they are distinct by virtue of their relationships, but they are not three separate Gods, because there is only one God, only one divine essence. God's essence is His perfect intellect and His perfect will. Now, what makes something a "person" is the possession of intellect and will. Since the Father is divine and there is only one God, that means the Father possesses the one divine intellect and divine will entirely to Himself-the Father does not share the divine intellect and divine will with the Son and the Spirit, for that would entail the heresy of Modalism. The same goes for the Son and the Spirit-each Divine Person possesses the divine intellect and divine will entirely to themselves, without sharing it with the other two Persons. Each Person is fully divine, for they each completely possesses the divine essence-there is no confusion of the Persons-yet there is only one God.
That is something that our intellect founders upon, because there is no analogy for that in our experience. I cannot know with your intellect, and you cannot choose with my will. Not so with God-what the Father knows, the Son and the Spirit also know, for there is only one divine intellect; what the Son chooses, the Father and the Spirit also choose, for there is only one divine will. There is never any opposition between the three Divine Persons-all three act together at all times, for He is one God with one intellect and one will.
Procession of the Spirit
One of the most grievous spiritual wounds that Christians have ever inflicted on themselves is the Great Schism between the Catholic Church and the
The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 A.D. is still in use in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, but the Western Catholic Church and several Protestant denominations use a modified version of the Creed, a version that says the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and from the Son." Around 400 A.D., the great Latin theologian St. Augustine of Hippo argued that the Holy Spirit does not proceed exclusively from the Father, but also proceeds from the Son back to the Father, and also proceeds to us from the Father and from the Son. This doctrine is known as the "double procession of the Holy Spirit," and later became an official dogma of the Catholic Church. In the 500s A.D., Catholic Churches in Spain began to add the word filioque to the Nicene Creed, and eventually that practice became widespread throughout the Western Catholic Church, finally being approved by the Pope-although the Pope did not call on Eastern Christians to add the filioque to the Creed, but merely had the Western Christians under his pastoral care include the additional language. Eastern Christians, however, objected to what they saw as an unauthorized or even heretical addition to the Nicene Creed without the approval of an Oecumenical Council.
A full and proper explanation of the Filioque Controversy, and of the many attempts of Western and Eastern theologians and churchmen to resolve this divisive doctrinal problem, is not possible in this article. Many Christians favor an alternate formulation-"who proceeds from the Father through the Son," rather than, "and from the Son." That formula preserves much of the traditional Western language of the Creed, while affirming something about the procession of the Spirit that both East and West agree on. Significantly, the current version of the WCG's Statement of Beliefs includes that compromise language, under the heading "God the Holy Spirit":
"God the Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Godhead, eternally proceeding from the Father through the Son. He is the Comforter promised by Jesus Christ, given by the Father to all believers. The Holy Spirit lives in us, unites us with the Father and the Son, and transforms us into the image of Christ through regeneration, repentance, sanctification, and continual renewal. The Holy Spirit is the Source of inspiration and prophecy throughout the Scriptures, and the Source of unity and communion in the church. He provides spiritual gifts for the work of the gospel, and is the Christian's constant Guide into all truth. (John 14:16; 15:26; Acts 2:4, 17-19, 38; Matthew 28:19; John 14: 17-26, 23; 1 Peter 1:2; Titus 3:5; 2 Peter 1:21; 1 Corinthians 12:13; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; Acts 20:28; John 16:13)"
For many centuries, the Filioque Controversy has been a sad occasion of tumult, schism, and animosity between Eastern and Western Christians. Today there are hopeful signs that the end of the controversy may be close at hand. In any case, pious Christians everywhere can only pray with Jesus that all Christians "may be one" (John ), and that the misunderstandings and doctrinal errors that divide us will soon come to an end.
We must also praise and glorify the name of the Lord for His goodness and mercy in giving us the grace that enabled us in the WCG to come to a better understanding of who and what God is. Failure to know and understand the personhood of the Holy Spirit has grave ramifications on a Christian's spiritual life, because the Most Holy Trinity is eternal, never-ending loving interrelationships. If we commit the sin of failing to recognise the personhood of the Holy Spirit, instead regarding Him as an "it," a power to be used (even Trinitarians can commit that sin), that belief has a ripple effect on all our relationships here below, for man is made in the image of God. In other words, if we misunderstand the reality of the three Divine Persons, our relationships with human persons will suffer. We will fail to recognise the personhood of our brother, but instead might start to treat him as a means to an end rather than an end in and of himself-we will use and abuse him, discarding him when he is no more use to us. That is, we will violate his dignity as a person, as a being who is complete, subsisting in and of himself, whose existence is unique and unrepeatable.
But thanks to His grace, we came to understand that our
former beliefs about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit were false, and that,
despite our sincerest intention to adhere to biblical teaching, we espoused
doctrines that contradicted the Bible's testimony and failed to uphold the
oneness of God and the full divinity of the three Divine Persons of the Most
Holy Trinity. In thanks for His love and His truth, I gladly affirm with the
Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen. (Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, ch. 14)
To be continued . . . .
EDITOR'S NOTE: The section entitled "Reasoning to the Trinity" above was adapted by kind permission of the author from Steven L. Kellmeyer's book Sex and the Sacred City, Bridegroom Press, 2003, chapter one, "The Trinity," pp.10-17.
For further information on the Christian philosophical and theological terms "Person" and "Substance," see
For the origin and history of the Macedonian or Pneumatomachian heresy, see
A discussion of the filioque doctrine from a Catholic perspective can be found at
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