Answering the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism, Part 1

Republished with permission from Dr. Reluctant.

Series introduction

Monergism.com, that excellent source for all things Reformed and Covenantal, has posted rebuttals of Dispensational Theology on its website. Included is a set of sixteen lectures by James Grier and a series of “95 Theses Against Dispensationalism” brought together by a group of believers (most—if not all—of them Partial Preterists) calling themselves by the collective nom-de-plume, “The Nicene Council.” There is also a DVD out criticizing this pernicious doctrine that I and many others hold.

From other posts, I have made it clear that I believe the title “Dispensationalism” is unfortunate in that it focuses attention more on the proposed economies within the history of revelation and away from the identification and outworking of the biblical covenants. This leads to misunderstandings and some lack of priority even within the ranks of adherents of the system.

It is too late to do much about that however, so I will continue to use the name “Dispensationalist” to define myself and my position in this post and the ones to follow, Lord willing.

What I would like to do is to try to answer the “95 Theses” one by one. I do this not because I am spoiling for a fight. What use is that? No, I simply wish to respond to these brethren and in so doing, perhaps help myself see my adopted position more clearly, and help others, pro and con, do the same.

Let me start off by saying that just as Covenant Theology (CT) has its proponents who do less than justice to its tenets, so too does Dispensational Theology (DT). Therefore, the erroneous views of men like John Hagee, or of ultra-dispensationalists, are not going to be indulged in these posts. Nor will I be detained by so-called “Progressive Dispensationalism,” which I believe—in agreement with covenenant theologians like Mathison and Poythress—is not really Dispensationalism at all.

I will concern myself here only with mainline classic dispensationalism as it has been represented by men like Darby, Scofield, Peters, Chafer, Sauer, McClain, Walvoord, Pentecost, Ryrie, Ice and Fruchtenbaum. Where I believe these men to be in error, I will state my disgreements as necessary. Covenant theologians differ among themselves as much as dispensational theologians do, but all agree that there are certain vital ingredients in each system which can be identified and tested.

Perhaps after this series I will interact with Grier’s critique as well.

Answering the 95 Theses against Dispensationalism

1. Contrary to the dispensationalists’ claim that their system is the result of a “plain interpretation” (Charles Ryrie) of Scripture, it is a relatively new innovation in Church history, having emerged only around 1830, and was wholly unknown to Christian scholars for the first eighteen hundred years of the Christian era. (95 Theses, accessed 8/6/2010)

Response: By “plain interpretation” Ryrie simply meant grammatico-historical hermeneutics (G-H. See his book Dispensationalism, 79-88). There is nothing novel about this. G-H was employed by the Reformers. To say that “plain interpretation” is “a relatively new innovation in Church History” is a bit of an embarrassing statement. It sounds like they are saying that the Bible does not mean what it says. But the issue is not “plain interpretation.” After all, I am to presume these objectors wish me to employ “plain interpretation” with regard to their statements? The issue is about whether to use G-H consistently across the board. This, as Ryrie sates, is what sets off dispensational hermeneutics from other theologies.

The idea that “plain interpretation” only came to light in the 1830′s is an egregious error which any textbook touching upon the subject will rectify. That it should be employed consistently when interpreting Scripture is more to the point. But the point is a minor one. The argument is that if something is “relatively new” it must be refused admittance. This commits two clear errors: 1. This reasoning would have to apply to both G-H (or Covenant Theology) circa 1550-1650. G-H was not the preferred hermeneutic of the “Church” for over a thousand years! It used to be “a relatively new innovation.” 2. But the main point here is that this argument abuses the quadrilateral–Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience. One cannot use Tradition to trump Scripture. Tradition (as Reason and Experience) is subservient to Scripture. What really matters here is whether dispensational theology is biblical. I say it is. The authors and signatories of the 95 Theses say otherwise. That is where the matter must be settled.

2. Contrary to the dispensationalist theologians’ frequent claim that “premillennialism is the historic faith of the Church” (Charles Ryrie), the early premillennialist Justin Martyr states that “many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.” Premillennialist Irenaeus agreed. A primitive form of each of today’s three main eschatological views existed from the Second Century onward. (See premillennialist admissions by D. H. Kromminga, Millennium in the Church and Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology). (95 Theses, accessed 8/6/2010)

Response: We are glad that the reader is directed to two books to check out this assertion. The “quotes” from Ryrie and Justin remind us of a Watchtower magazine—no way to check them out. But to get a better idea of Erickson’s opinion I submit the following:

“The first three centuries of the church were probably dominated by what we would today call premillennialism…” (Christian Theology, 1213 cf. 1215).

To this agree John Hannah (Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine, 306), and James Orr (The Progress of Dogma, 345-346). Orr writes, “So far as the early Church had a doctrine of the last things it was prevailingly chiliastic, i.e., millenarian.” In a footnote he gives Papias, Justin and Irenaeus. It would not be difficult to find similar statements in most authoritative texts.

This is another incidental matter. That a minority held differing views on the millennium in the first three centuries may be true. But premillennialism (though not dispensational) was the popular view.

3. Contrary to the dispensationalists’ attempt to link its history to that of early premillennial Church Fathers, those ancient premillennialists held positions that are fundamentally out of accord with the very foundational principles of dispensationalism, foundations which Ryrie calls “the linchpin of dispensationalism”, such as (1) a distinction between the Church and Israel (i.e., the Church is true Israel, “the true Israelitic race” (Justin Martyr) and (2) that “Judaism … has now come to an end” (Justin Martyr). (95 Theses, accessed 8/6/2010)

Response: Basing “theses” upon unsubstantiated and undocumented quotations is not wise. Where does Ryrie assert this? Are these individuals trying to say that Ryrie or other dispensational scholars have tried to claim that the early Church held to dispensational theology? Ryrie does notice “dispensational-like concepts” in the early Church (Dispensationalism, 63-64), but he says clearly (plainly?): “Dispensationalists recognize that as a system of theology it is recent in origin.” (63. For more on these proto-dispensational concepts see e.g., David L. Larsen, The Company of Hope, ch.4).

Perhaps they are merely saying that Ryrie linked dispenasationalist belief in a literal millennium with early Church belief? Well, yes, he did. And why shouldn’t he? Doesn’t that at least show that holding to premillennialism is not “an innovation”?

4. Despite dispensationalism’s claim of antiquity through its association with historic premillennialism, it radically breaks with historic premillennialism by promoting a millennium that is fundamentally Judaic rather than Christian.

Response: Dispensationalism only claims antiquity for a belief in a literal 1,000 year millennium and for some proto-dispensational schemes in the early Church. It does not claim that dispensational theology can be found in the Church fathers (see the documented quote from Ryrie above).

What of the “Judaic rather than Christian” view of the millennium? This is true. Dispensationalists see that the promises God made with Israel He made to the nation (this has to do with the doctrine of the Remnant). Ergo, if the fulfillment of these promises casts a “Judaic” hue upon the earthly reign of the King of Israel (Jesus) then so be it. “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29).

What Christian influences there will be at that time is not extensively taught in Scripture. But it will be marked, since we shall be reigning with Christ. It is not our job to iron out what we don’t like about Scripture by devising non-literal interpretations.

5. Contrary to many dispensationalists’ assertion that modern-day Jews are faithful to the Old Testament and worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Hagee), the New Testament teaches that there is no such thing as “orthodox Judaism.” Any modern-day Jew who claims to believe the Old Testament and yet rejects Christ Jesus as Lord and God rejects the Old Testament also. (95 Theses, accessed 8/6/2010)

Response: Really? John Hagee? Is he an accepted authority? Of course he is up the wrong turnpike. Isn’t Harold Camping a non-millennialist? Can we move on?

6. Contrary to the dispensationalists’ assertion that the early Church was premillennial in its eschatology, “none of the major creeds of the church include premillennialism in their statements” (R.P. Lightner), even though the millennium is supposedly God’s plan for Israel and the very goal of history, which we should expect would make its way into our creeds. (95 Theses, accessed 8/6/2010)

Response: The mix and match of assertions is rather like reading a Gail Riplinger book. Now, the early Church was predominantly premillennial (try J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 465), but most if not all of the major creeds were formulated after the Second Century so one wouldn’t expect to find it there.

That will do for now. There is nothing of any substance in any of these assertions. The “Nicene Council” have gotten off to a bad start. Maybe they will do better? We think they will prove more formidable later, and I’m glad for that. But as far as the first six theses are concerned, there is nothing to write home about.

We do hope that if they are going to build “theses” on what somebody is supposed to have said, they would be good enough to provide the right documentation so that we may check to see whether they are doing right by their Christian brothers, however we may differ on these things.


Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and am a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (M.Div., Ph.D). He has been a Church-planter, pastor, and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Veritas School of Theology.

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Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

1. Contrary to the dispensationalists' claim that their system is the result of a "plain interpretation" (Charles Ryrie) of Scripture, it is a relatively new innovation in Church history, having emerged only around 1830, and was wholly unknown to Christian scholars for the first eighteen hundred years of the Christian era. (95 Theses, accessed 8/6/2010)

Response: By "plain interpretation" Ryrie simply meant grammatico-historical hermeneutics (G-H. See his book Dispensationalism, 79-88). There is nothing novel about this. G-H was employed by the Reformers. To say that "plain interpretation" is "a relatively new innovation in Church History" is a bit of an embarrassing statement. It sounds like they are saying that the Bible does not mean what it says. But the issue is not "plain interpretation." After all, I am to presume these objectors wish me to employ "plain interpretation" with regard to their statements? The issue is about whether to use G-H consistently across the board. This, as Ryrie sates, is what sets off dispensational hermeneutics from other theologies.

The idea that "plain interpretation" only came to light in the 1830′s is an egregious error which any textbook touching upon the subject will rectify. That it should be employed consistently when interpreting Scripture is more to the point. But the point is a minor one. The argument is that if something is "relatively new" it must be refused admittance. This commits two clear errors: 1. This reasoning would have to apply to both G-H (or Covenant Theology) circa 1550-1650. G-H was not the preferred hermeneutic of the "Church" for over a thousand years! It used to be "a relatively new innovation." 2. But the main point here is that this argument abuses the quadrilateral–Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience. One cannot use Tradition to trump Scripture. Tradition (as Reason and Experience) is subservient to Scripture. What really matters here is whether dispensational theology is biblical. I say it is. The authors and signatories of the 95 Theses say otherwise. That is where the matter must be settled.

One of us has misunderstood the thesis here. I thought the "new innovation" referenced here was the dispensationalism, not the grammatico-historical hermeneutic.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Bob Hayton's picture

I agree that history is not definitive. But the teaching of the Church in generations past was given for our benefit. We do wise to hear them out, especially when they are closer by far to the New Testament era than ourselves. While a strict G-H hermeneutic is somewhat novel, it was part of interpretation all along. And while a fully developed CT is new, some key elements existed. One of the two sina-qua-non's of dispensationalism (per Ryrie somewhere in his Dispensationalism Today book, I believe) is the Church and Israel being distinct. But historically, the idea that the Church was joined to the true Israel (ala Eph. 2) and partook of Israel's promises (in a non "distinct" way) is the historical teaching of the Church through all centuries up until 1830 or so. That is what was so novel about Dispensationalism.

I still grant that the Bible is far more important than history, but this fact should give us some pause before adopting the system wholesale.

I also concur with Chip's comments that you misread the first thesis.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Bob Hayton wrote:
I agree that history is not definitive. But the teaching of the Church in generations past was given for our benefit. We do wise to hear them out, especially when they are closer by far to the New Testament era than ourselves. While a strict G-H hermeneutic is somewhat novel, it was part of interpretation all along. And while a fully developed CT is new, some key elements existed. One of the two sina-qua-non's of dispensationalism (per Ryrie somewhere in his Dispensationalism Today book, I believe) is the Church and Israel being distinct. But historically, the idea that the Church was joined to the true Israel (ala Eph. 2) and partook of Israel's promises (in a non "distinct" way) is the historical teaching of the Church through all centuries up until 1830 or so. That is what was so novel about Dispensationalism.

I still grant that the Bible is far more important than history, but this fact should give us some pause before adopting the system wholesale.

Bob,
History is not definitive, and neither is one's personal testimony. However as one who grew up steeped in the Reformation (not Reformed Theology, per se, but conservative Lutheranism -- which nevertheless would agree strongly with your point), I can say that it was Bible prophecy, dispensational issues and the matter of literal interpretation which God used to draw me out of the denomination I received by heritage into the realm of fundamentalism.
When I see the trends now taking so many from "our circles" back in the direction of Reformed Theology -- including many people who do not have the background experience that I have to weigh these things against -- sometimes I am tempted to wonder what I have gained.
Nothing personal, but you can have all of the "non-distinct" church/Israel confusion you want to have. I say, no, thank you.

Church Ministries Representative, serving in the Midwest, for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry 

Gary Peterson's picture

I appreciate Paul tackling the pompous Nicene Council and their attacks on Premillennial Dispensationalism. Virtually every other day my inbox has one of their e-mail offers for $9.95 DVDs like Late Great Planet Church, which attacks Dispensationalism. The descriptive copy and blurbs are so smug and triumphalist that I suspect the DVDs are less thoughtful critiques and more pop apologist James White-style bombast and bluster. It would be easy to ignore the Nicene Council as a fringe, but they boast about selling 10,000 copies of that particular DVD. And with guys like Sproul and Hannegraaf stepping out onto the slippery slope to Preterism, the attacks on biblical eschatology warrant a thoughtful response.

It seems to me that in recent years a new generation of Reformed enthusiasts has arisen (the "Jonathan Edwards is My Homeboy" crowd, as a memorable CT cover story reported it). They love the Puritans and their heirs like Spurgeon and Philpot. But unfortunately, I see many of these people being drawn like the proverbial moth to a repackaged Reconstructionist/Dominionist movement, for which the Nicene Council seems to be a front, offering as they do materials by Pink and Calvin as well as by Rushdooney and Bahnsen.

I'll be looking forward to future installments, Paul.

ssutter's picture

1) Obviously these first five points are about the same thing - the historical roots of Dispensationalism. (which is... again obviously more than a simply literal, in context reading of scripture.)
2) The Covenant/Reformed does seem to win the battle in historical background. - (seriously? "Dispensationalism"... - someone just made that word up... in English... clearly not that old.
3) DT Loses historical background context. Dispensationalism is probably newish. - BEST case, there a small minority of people in church history who could read Ryrie and understand it. But, I don't think DT can possibly use "most of the Christian Church has been Dispensational" argument the way the CT side tries to... and WHO CARES.

If I were writing this post - i'd be willing to concede - sure guys, for most of church history Covenant Theology has been the norm... and so has slavery, religious wars, having a Pope, or killing off people who disagree with you. Sometimes godly men get it wrong - and maybe we should look at scripture instead of taking a vote from historical figures.

_______________
www.SutterSaga.com

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Jim Peet wrote:
Another good source on Dispensational misconceptions is Michael Vlach's So what exactly is Dispensationalism?

Available here: http://www.theologicalstudies.org/dispensationalismbook.html[/quote]

Yes, Vlach's work is excellent. You could read it in an afternoon. It would make an excellent starter for someone with little exposure to dispensationalism. The only drawback is that he does not draw a fine line between traditional and progressive dispensationalism.

But I still think we need those T-shirts. Cool

Church Ministries Representative, serving in the Midwest, for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry 

Joel Shaffer's picture

Paul (the writer of this article),

There is one error you made in reporting this. The 16 part lectures by James Grier is really by a Presbyterian pastor from Northern Ireland by the name of Rev. John Greer.

http://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?subsetitem=Dispensational+Theology....^John^Greer&SpeakerOnly=true&currSection=sermonsspeaker&includekeywords

Dr. James Grier happens to be the retired dean of Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary (now Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) who is a Progressive Dispensationalist. Here is his website. http://jamesmgrier.org/

Charlie's picture

In any dispute, debate is going to be carried out on multiple levels. There will be both thoughtful, informed experts and worthless demagogues. The Nicene Council falls into the latter category. Not a single person on their staff or boards is a major figure inside the Reformed churches. A few of the people are eccentric individuals who have unfortunately managed to accrue small but devoted followings. One of them, Ken Gentry, is a renegade Presbyterian (not an official term). He was deposed from his church and, instead of accepting the decision of his denomination, has set up an independent Presbyterian (say what?) church outside of Greenville, SC. At the end of the day, these people are inconsequential.

So sorry anyone had to see this. Please ignore these men and get back to your regular lives.

Sincerely,

An Embarrassed Reformed Christian

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

AndrewSuttles's picture

Chip Van Emmerik wrote:
One of us has misunderstood the thesis here. I thought the "new innovation" referenced here was the dispensationalism, not the grammatico-historical hermeneutic.

Yep, Chip, you are correct. Dr. Henebury did not honestly deal with point number 1. The new innovation referenced by the Nicene Council guys is not 'plain interpretation', which is something the Reformers fought for, but rather Dispensationalism itself.

AndrewSuttles's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:
Monergism.com ...has posted rebuttals of Dispensational Theology on its website.

The link is not to monergism.com, but rather to a website called againstdispensationalism.com.

Paul Henebury wrote:
Are these individuals trying to say that Ryrie or other dispensational scholars have tried to claim that the early Church held to dispensational theology?

Yep - that is EXACTLY the way dispensationalism is commonly taught. Quite frequently dispensationalists mention that the premillennial faith was that held by the Early Father and even many of the Puritans, but they neglect to mention that Dispensationalism and Premillennialism are not synonymous.

I agree with Dr. Hennebury that the 95 Theses are off to a sort of poor start, but the responses are off to an equally poor (and in point #1 deceiving) start. Hopefully the argumentation will be MUCH better from both sides of the argument in future installments.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Dispensational forms have been expressed all throughout church history. Point #1 may not be handled satisfactorily by Dr. Henebury for some but the claim contained within the series stating about dispensationalism that it was:

Quote:
wholly unknown to Christian scholars for the first eighteen hundred years of the Christian era.
Is far more dishonesty than anyone could have strained to force from Henebury. Recognition of economies upon which dispensationalsim is based are indeed found throughout the works of Christian scholars during the first eighteen hundred years. The absolute statement, "wholly unknown" is simply a selfish disregard for the basic observation by many of such economies.

No, they are not Darby's expression but their standard isn't that, they claim it is "wholly unknown". They may not be found in this developed form but the observation and understanding of certain economies different than the church age with differing protocol to some extent, are observed throughout church history by its scholars and writers. It is a dubious claim to say it is "wholly unknown".

Paul Henebury's picture

This series of posts is bound to provoke much discussion, and I for one hope it does! Let me make it clear that I am not in the business of defending Dispensationalism per se but of what I see as biblical truth. DT (as CT) is our fallible attempt to set out the teaching of Scripture in an accurate way. What matters is that we help each other to do this even in the midst of some strong disagreement.

Here are some responses to the above comments:

1. Chip, Bob and Andrew - You are right to point out how I misread the first thesis. Many people have read my reply and not seen it. This is the benefit of a forum such as SI. As one who occasionally chides students to exercise due diligence to correctly represent the views of others I must own my own mistakes when I too am shown to have feet of clay!

Fortunately, I don't think my fault materially affects anything, but it is a bit misleading. Thank you for calling my attention to this.

2. Bob - Your point is taken but is at most a call to exercise caution in the setting forth of new interpretations and formulations of the Bible's teaching. Because Church History is what it is this is something of a double-edged sword. E.g., One cannot find anyone prior to the Reformation who clearly taught that a true Christian cannot loose their salvation. Again, the "Already/Not Yet" hermeneutics so influential in some eschatologies is of very recent vintage.

3. Paul - re: Michael Vlach. I agree with your sentiments.

4. Joel - My thanks to you for clarifying something I left uncertain.

5. Charlie - Point taken!

6. Andrew - You charge me with dishonesty and with deceiving. I hope my owning up to my error corrects your impression. Our previous interactions have always been cordial. Still, I do not think you can demonstrate your other contention very easily. While it is true that people like Hyppolytus did speak of things which Dispensationalists would latter agree with, I am not aware of dispensational writers who would teach in the dogmatic way you characterize them as teaching.

Thanks to all who commented.

Paul H.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Rob Fall's picture

topic is Dispensationalism. The articles were written by the Faculty of Maranatha BBC and Seminary.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Paul, thanks for interacting with us and for sharing your work with SI.
Charlie... I feel your pain. Really. Sadly, though, it's so often the more sensational guys (I refer to "Nicene Council") who get bought up and devoured like hot cakes. So it's good to answer them for that reason.
And maybe along the way, we'll get to take a closer look at some of the stuff about DT that seems to really bug people.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Greg Long's picture

ssutter wrote:
1) Obviously these first five points are about the same thing - the historical roots of Dispensationalism. (which is... again obviously more than a simply literal, in context reading of scripture.)
2) The Covenant/Reformed does seem to win the battle in historical background. - (seriously? "Dispensationalism"... - someone just made that word up... in English... clearly not that old.
3) DT Loses historical background context. Dispensationalism is probably newish. - BEST case, there a small minority of people in church history who could read Ryrie and understand it. But, I don't think DT can possibly use "most of the Christian Church has been Dispensational" argument the way the CT side tries to... and WHO CARES.

If I were writing this post - i'd be willing to concede - sure guys, for most of church history Covenant Theology has been the norm... and so has slavery, religious wars, having a Pope, or killing off people who disagree with you. Sometimes godly men get it wrong - and maybe we should look at scripture instead of taking a vote from historical figures.


If you were "willing to concede" that "for most of church history Covenant Theology has been the norm" you'd be incorrect because it has not, at least not as a system, since it wasn't developed until the 16th century. But as Paul pointed out, somehow a theological system developed in the 16th century is OK, but one developed in the 19th century is WAY too new.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Bob Hayton's picture

Greg Long wrote:
If you were "willing to concede" that "for most of church history Covenant Theology has been the norm" you'd be incorrect because it has not, at least not as a system, since it wasn't developed until the 16th century. But as Paul pointed out, somehow a theological system developed in the 16th century is OK, but one developed in the 19th century is WAY too new.

It's not quite like that, Greg. For most of church history, the basic continuity of the church with Israel was accepted, even before the express development of CT. Dispensationalism's sharp separation of the church from any connection to Israel is what is radically new and a departure from historical theology. I don't advocate the church replaced Israel, but that the NT affirms the church is a co-heir with Israel, is joined with the common-wealth Israel, and members of the church are fellow-children of Abraham. They have the same promises, and share Abraham's blessing.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

AndrewSuttles's picture

+1 for Bob.

Dr Henebury -

My criticism was too harsh. I apologize.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Appreciate that, Andrew.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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