Excerpted and revised from Fictional Foundations of Trinitarian Thought
Keith G. Morehead
An explanation of why philosophy influenced the Church:
The thought of the Fathers of the Church in the first centuries of the Christian era is called Patristic speculation. The Christians' purpose is neither intellectual nor theoretical. In spite of the extraordinary profundity of their writings, St. John and St. Paul do not intend to create a philosophy; it is another matter that philosophy must inevitably concern itself with them. But, little by little, speculative themes acquire a place in Christianity. This was brought about particularly by two stimuli of a polemical (controversial) nature: heresies and the intellectual reaction of paganism. The first centuries of the Christian era are those of the establishment of Christian dogma. Orthodox interpretation is accompanied by many heresies, which call for greater conceptual precision if the Church is to discuss them, repel them and convince the faithful of the authentic truth. Dogma is formulated all during the struggle against the numerous heretical movements. On the other hand, the pagans pay belated attention to the religion of Christ. At first it seemed to them to be a strange and absurd sect, one which they did not clearly distinguish from Judaism; they considered it a religion made up by men who were almost insane [emphasis mine], who worshipped a dead-and crucified- God, a religion of people who related the most surprising and disagreeable stories. When St. Paul speaks on the Areopagus to the refined and curious Athenians of the first century, who are only interested in saying or hearing something new, they listen attentively and courteously while he speaks of the unknown God whom he has come to announce; but when he mentions the resurrection of the dead, some laugh and others say that they will listen to him speak of that some other time, and almost all of them leave him. The almost total ignorance of Christianity on the part of even such a man as Tacitus is well known. Later, Christianity acquires greater influence; it reaches the higher classes, and paganism begins to take notice of it. Then the intellectual attacks begin, and the new religion must defend itself from them in like manner; to effect this it must make use of the intellectual instruments which it has at its command: the Greek philosophical concepts [emphasis mine]. In this way Christianity, which shows a total hostility toward reason in many of its earliest figures (the most famous example is Tertullian), ends by assimilating Greek philosophy in order to use it, in Apologist writings, in defending itself against attacks based on the point of view of Greek philosophy [emphasis mine].
Thus Christianity sees itself committed, first, to the intellectual formulation of dogma and, secondly, to a rational discussion with its heretical or pagan enemies. This is the origin of Patristic speculation, the purpose of which, I repeat, is not philosophical, and which can be considered philosophical only in a limited sense (Marias, pp. 107, 108).
This view, that the early Church fathers used Greek philosophy to give the Christian faith credibility with critical intellects of their time is not exclusive, by any means, to this one particular author.
I would like to mention at this point that I have relied heavily on McClintock's and Strong's Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (twelve volumes), and Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church (eight volumes). James Strong is the same individual known for Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible . The authors of these sources are Trinitarian in their doctrine which should free me from suspicion of bias in the use of my sources.
I now cite a second author.
The contact between the Greek and the Hebrew worlds created a new problem, that of explaining and justifying the Hebraic religious view, and later the Christian outlook, in terms that would make sense to those who did not accept either the Old or New Testament picture of the world. As St. Paul discovered, the message of Christianity sounded like nonsense to the Greek philosophers. When he spoke to them at Athens, they ridiculed him. Jewish and Christian thinkers began to try to state their religious beliefs in terms that would be reasonable to someone schooled in Greek philosophy. They attempted to show that the assertions of their religion were justified on the standards employed by the Greek philosophers [emphasis mine]. Philo Judaeus, of the first century A.D., and the early Church Fathers Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150?-220-?) and Origen (A.D. 185?-254?) argued that the religion of the Bible was compatible with Platonic philosophy [emphasis mine]. They contended that philosophical reasons could be given for accepting certain religious views, and that various religious contentions could be interpreted as ways of stating philosophical theses. Over the next several centuries, many theories from the writing of the Greek philosophers were employed by theologians to clarify or justify their religious convictions [emphasis mine]. Proofs of the existence of God, and theories about His Nature were set forth to provide a rational justification for the religious knowledge-claims of the Judaeo-Christian tradition [emphasis mine], and of the Mohammedan religion (Stroll and Popkin, p.342).
We have discovered that the introduction of philosophy into Christian doctrine was made by the need to legitimize Christianity with Greek thinkers in order to make it more palatable to the pagan world. Since Christians were made to be fools in comparison to the philosophical thought of the day, something had to be done to give Christianity a rational foundation. To communicate to the pagans and give Christianity credibility, church leaders argued that Christianity was not in conflict with the Greek philosophy that the pagans revered and respected.
The Word of God does not require human philosophy or intellectualism to be valid. God announces His opinion of man's wisdom in Isaiah 55: 7-8: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways , and my thoughts than your thoughts. God's Word stands whether it is accepted to be true or not. If men do not honor God or His Word it does not detract from Him or make His Word any less true.
When the Word of God is interpreted in the light of human philosophy there can be only one result, the loss of an accurate understanding of what God was trying to communicate to us. The perfect Word of God becomes contaminated. This is illustrated in the damage that has been done to the monotheistic message of the Bible since the incorporation of philosophy into biblical interpretation. It began a deviation from the absolute Oneness of God; a deviation which was never promoted or preached by the apostolic Church, and one that later Church leaders did not correct.
I make no attempt to ridicule or judge the Church fathers since I have no idea what the frustration of communicating the marvelous Gospel of Jesus Christ to cynical and sarcastic philosophers was like, but I do question their judgment. I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt by personally thinking that their only desire was to allow pagans to benefit from the atoning sacrifice of Jesus' blood. Possibly, they hoped to bring the pagans to salvation by attempting to communicate with them in a jargon that they could understand. However, this is all speculation on my part.
In order to understand how philosophy could be so completely blended into Christian doctrine, an understanding of philosophical teaching must be grasped. I will give a brief description of the teaching of the major philosophers and the contribution to Christian doctrine that scholars have credited them with.
427 BC- 347 BC
The question may be asked, Why is Plato, a philosopher that died before Jesus was even born, included in a discussion involving the influence of the post apostolic church on modern doctrine? Plato is considered to be one of the most important of all Greek philosophers, and by far the most influential of all the students of Socrates. The influence of Plato increased when Christianity was in its developing stages and facing opposition from pagan beliefs. Both sides used his philosophy to strengthen their arguments and they both submitted to his intellectual dominance. Below is a synopsis of his theological viewpoints and the effect it had on posterity.
Plato's thoughts on God, which are among the most difficult to comprehend, found their way into both the Christian religion [emphasis mine] and Western philosophy. This could not take place however, until the Idea of the Good of Plato had been transformed into the One of the neo-Platonists and adapted to the Christian religion [emphasis mine] by St. Augustine, Origen, Dionysius the Areopagite, John the Scot, and other key figures of the Christian Church (Fishler, p. 19).
Plato's God is the cause of all that exists and all that transpires in the world, but his is a divine principle--the Idea of the Good, for the fulfillment of which all things strive; a final purpose rather than a person or a compelling force or power; he is an ideal goal, the eternal, perfect type of existence (ibid., p. 22).
One important result of this Platonic view of the world is that Mind as the principle of reasonableness, orderliness, harmoniousness, and perfectability, is woven into the very structure of Reality and is so universally diffused as to allow no particle of reality to remain unaffected by it.
Mind or Reason is in control of the universe. And Plato invokes a principle, midway between Mind and the physical universe, the "Demiurge," to create and fashion the world in imitation of the perfect, eternal Ideas or Forms.... The divine Demiurge may be said to correspond in the nature of universal being to an artisan or craftsman in our physical world [emphasis mine]. Instead of a single specific idea which the human craftsman seeks to make objectively real, however, the divine craftsman--the "Demiurge"--makes manifest and gives embodiment to the most comprehensive of all Ideas, the Idea of the Cosmos, in all its multifarious being.
The divine craftsman makes Reason or Mind manifest in creation (ibid., p. 32).
Plato: "The father and maker of this Universe is beyond discovering, and even if we did find him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible (Theat)" (ibid., p. 40).
Please take special note of the first paragraph describing the influence of Plato on the Christian religion and how his Idea of the Good was transformed into the One of the Neo-Platonists. The creation of the "Demiurge" as the mediator between the Mind or Reason, created to create and fashion the world is a significant point to remember in the context of how the fourth century church interpreted the Logos of John 1:1-14. This "Demiurge" is built upon and refined by future philosophers and church leaders.
An explanation of Plato's Demiurge:
Yet though God is distinctly and habitually acknowledged as the father and creator of all things, all things were not directly framed and regulated by the Supreme Divinity. For the government of the sensible universe he created a subordinate deity, and placed it in the material creation [emphasis mine] Timaeus, p. 34. This guiding spirit, or Demiurgus, was a mixture of the ideal and of the material of the one and of the many, that being intermediate, it might communicate with both (McClintock and Strong, Volume VIII, p. 286).
Philo Judaeus of Alexandria
B.C. 20? - A.D. 50?
Philo was born in Alexandria, Egypt where he lived his entire life. Alexandria was the center of Hellenistic (Greek) and Christian philosophy, the metropolis of the learned world in Philo's lifetime. In fact one dictionary defines Alexandrian school as "the school of Christian philosophers and theologians at Alexandria during the first five centuries A.D., that sought to combine Christianity and Greek philosophy" (Funk and Wagnall).
Philo was a Jew, and it is asserted by the Jewish historian Josephus, Eusebius, Jerome and others that he was a member of the sacerdotal (priestly) family. Some believe he was a Pharisee. In addition to a knowledge of Jewish theology, he possessed an extensive comprehension of Greek philosophy, especially Platonic. Philo is therefore declared to be the first and most important Neo-Platonic philosopher. Since Philo was alive during the life of Jesus, a crossing of their paths may be expected but no mention of this is made.
The following quote is taken from the introduction of a ten volume set of Philo's own writings. It serves as an overview of Philo's contributions to both philosophy and Christianity.
But the ruling side of his [Philo's] theology is that while God is absolutely removed from us, incomprehensible and only known as absolute being [emphasis mine], He is also infinitely close to us, in fact at once transcendent and immanent. As is well known, Philo solved this antinomy by postulating, as intermediaries between the uncreated and the created, the Logos or Divine Reason, and also "Powers" or "Potencies," the two chief of which are goodness and sovereignty represented in the Old Testament by the names of "God" and "Lord" respectively. Of these intermediaries, the Logos has attracted more attention than any other Philonic question, mainly, no doubt, because of the similarity--and dissimilarity--of Philo's conception to that of the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel....If Philo is a link between Judaism and Hellenism, he is also a link between Judaism and Christianity [emphasis mine], and that in two different ways. In the first place, quite apart from the relation of his Logos to the Johannine there is a certain affinity between Philonism and the New Testament, which will at once attract and disappoint the student. Philo's conceptions of Conscience as the inward Judge, of the Spirit, of Faith, of Sonship, of Immortality, and many other conceptions of the same kind, are sufficiently like the uses of the same terms in the Epistles to make comparison fruitful. But except perhaps in the case of the first-named, where his attitude shows a great advance above his Stoic predecessors and a remarkable approximation to the Christian view, there are differences which to many will seem to out weigh the likeness....So far the conexion[sic] between Philo and Christian thought is one that springs from their common heritage and atmosphere, and their common ideals and temperament. There is no direct contact or conscious borrowing. But when the first century or so of Christianity is passed we find something more. Philo becomes something of a power in the Church [emphasis mine]. It is true that the Christian mind eager to find in the Old Testament figures and types of Christ could not altogether welcome his kind of exegesis, and indeed Augustine, while acknowledging his acuteness, deplores his deficiency. Still otherwise his treatment of the books made a great impression on some of the Fathers, and his Logos doctrine was superficially at least, sufficiently like that of the Fourth Gospel to suggest that his was an "anima naturaliter Christina [natural Christian principle]." His influence is probably to be seen in Justin, and is obvious in the two great liberal Christians of Alexandria, Clement and Origen. Among the Latin Fathers, Ambrose uses him considerably [emphasis mine]. Doubtless this feeling of his affinity to Christianity helped preserve his works, when so much of the post-Aristolelian philosophy has perished (Philo, Editors: Page, Capps, Rouse, Volume I, Introduction, pp. ix-xxii).
Some of the Church fathers were greatly impressed and influenced by the writings and teaching of Philo. The primary question during the time of Justin Martyr, Clement, and Origen was How can God be alone in His reign and Jesus be divine, without the devastation of monotheism? Philo's doctrine of the Logos, with its close similarity to John 1:1-14 (prologue of John) offered the perfect solution.
Let us read a second opinion.
The Fathers of the Church do not have a definite and precise system. They take from Hellenic thought the elements which they need at that particular moment. One must also bear in mind that their knowledge of Greek philosophy is very incomplete and faulty. In general, they are eclectics: they select from all the pagan schools what seems to them most useful in obtaining their goals [emphasis mine]. We find a formal declaration of eclecticism in the writings of Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis [Miscellanies],I,7). But the major philosophic source which nourishes the Fathers is, of course, Neoplatonism, which is to influence the Middle Ages so greatly [emphasis mine], especially until the thirteenth century, when its influence will diminish before Aristotle's prestige. The Fathers come to know Plato (in a rather imprecise way) through the Neoplatonic philosophers (Plotinus, Porphyry, etc.), and they look for analogies to Christianity in Platonic thought [emphasis mine]....
The questions which most concern the fathers of the Church are the most important problems created by dogma. As a general rule, philosophic problems are created by religious, revealed truths which require rational interpretation, and this is the case in the Middles Ages. Thus, reason is used to clarify and formulate dogma, or to defend it. The Creation, God's relationship with the world, evil, the soul, the meaning of life and of redemption--these are the major problems with which the early Fathers of the Church concern themselves. And alongside these problems we find strictly theological questions, such as those that refer to the essence of God, the Trinity of divine persons [emphasis mine], and so on (Marias, p. 109).
In addition to the "Logos," philosophers contributed a concept that God was impassible , which means that they believed he was untouchable, unreachable, incapable of feelings, unable to experience pain and invulnerable. This concept of the impassibility of God is passed down to the Church fathers and is illustrated later in the history of the Church when "patripassianism (explained on page 59)" is condemned. The concept of impassibility is introduced in the preceding reference stating God is absolutely removed from us, and is expanded in the following reference.
How close was Philo's teaching of the Logos of God to the teaching of the so-called orthodox Christian Church? I will pass that judgment onto the reader after this next passage is considered.
How does the Highest Spirit, the eternally Perfect One, enter into the finite world? He creates ideals from himself, says Plato. He introspects himself, and thus perfection is produced; but this perfection impresses itself upon more subordinate [emphasis mine] existencies, and thus it descends from immediate causes to intermediate causes, until the real objects spring into existence, and creation becomes manifest to us; God, the eternal existence, the eternally perfect is the highest cause, but the eternally Pure One does not immediately come into contact with the impure [emphasis mine]--only by means of manifold(many types of) emanations (to flow from a source) and concatenations (the act of linking together ), the earthly grows into existence. Such views afforded the philosophic Jew a happy means of preserving the theory of the infallibility and inconceivableness of God, and yet of accepting the different figurative expressions concerning God in the Bible, because they could refer to the subordinate beings. ....tenaciously adhered to, and whenever it expressed entities too directly, it had to yield to forced interpretations. To such also the Bible was frequently subjected [emphasis mine]. Narratives and commands were forcibly driven from their natural simplicity into artificial philosophemes, in the belief that their value would thus be enhanced [emphasis mine]. The figurative expressions and events in connection with God were referred to such subordinate spirits as had evolved themselves from God. In the writings of Philo that intermediate agency is comprised in the Logos [emphasis mine] .
Philo offered a solution in that idea of a Logos, or Word of God, divinity articulate, speaking and acting in time and space, and therefore by successive acts, and so doing in time and space the will of the timeless and spaceless Father, the abysmal and eternal Being, of whom he was the perfect likeness. In calling this person the Logos, and making him the source of all human reason, and knowledge of eternal laws, he only translated from Hebrew into Greek the name which he found in his sacred books, "The Word of God." Of God himself, Philo teaches that he is incorporeal, invisible, and cognizable only through the reason; that he is the most universal of beings, the Being to whom alone being, as such, truly pertains; that he is more excellent than virtue, than science, or even than the good per se and the beautiful per se. He is one and simple, imperishable and eternal; his existence is absolute and separate from the world [emphasis mine]; the world is his work...
God is not in contact with matter; if he were he would be defiled [emphasis mine]. He who holds the world itself to be God the Lord has fallen into error and sacrilege. In his essence God is incomprehensible; we can only know that he is, not what he is... In creating the world, God employed as instruments incorporeal potencies or ideas, since he could not come in contact with polluting matter.
...Philo describes the Logos, therefore, as the first-born before all existence, as the perfect reflection of God...he calls him God's vicegerent in the world: he gives him the office of mediator between God and the universe.... Hence he is the high priest of the world, the advocate for the defects of men with God and generally the revealer of the divine nature to the universe [emphasis mine]. The Logos is the archetype of the reason, which is formed not after the Absolute himself, but after the Logos. He is the revelation of Absolute in the reason, is the image of God after which man, according to Genesis, was created. In this connection he calls the Logos the ideal man; and alluding to a Jewish mystical idea, the original man. In the Logos is the unity of the collected revelations of the Divine Being which is individualized in man. In general, everything is traced back to the distinction between the Divine Being as he is in himself and his revelation in the Logos....But this Logos by Philo is only a sort of intermediate being between God, who is in his nature hidden, simple, without attributes, and the eternal, shapeless, chaotic matter. It is the reflection, the first-born Son of God; the second God [emphasis mine]; the sum of the ideas, which are the original types of all existence; the ideal world itself; the medium through which the actual, sensible world is created and upheld [emphasis mine]; the interpreter and revealer of God; the archangel, who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, spoke to Jacob and to Moses in the burning bush, and led the people of Israel through the wilderness; the high priest, and advocate, who pleads the cause of sinful humanity before God, and procures for it the pardon of its guilt [emphasis mine]. We can see an apparent affinity of this view with the christology of St. Paul and St. John, and thus it probably came to exert no small influence with the early Church fathers in the evolution of their doctrine of the Logos...Alexandrian ideas formed a bridge to Christianity( McClintock and Strong, Volume VIII, pp. 112, 113).
A final quotation concerning the Logos, from the same source, only under the heading of NEO-PLATONISM, states:
The highest of all the divine forces is the Logos, in which the world of ideas finds its place. The Logos is the image of God, and the type after which the world is formed, and the manifestation of the Deity, making and ruling the world, and serving as the Mediator between God and man. The conception of an incarnate Logos was, however, impossible to Philo, who regarded matter as impure [emphasis mine]. This conception forms one of the fundamental doctrines which separate Christianity from the Alexandrian theosophy(McClintock and Strong, Volume VI, p. 940) .
A.D. 205-A.D. 270
Plotinus is the last philosopher we will present as strictly a philosopher. After Plotinus, all the individuals discussed may still be considered to be philosophers, but their primary role is that of Church Fathers. The influence of Plato, Philo, and Plotinus on the Christian Church is not the result of their involvement in the Church; their influence on the Christian Church is the result of the impact that their teaching had on the forthcoming Church leaders.
Plotinus was, like Philo, a Neo-Platonist. He was a fellow disciple of Origen (a later Church Father) under the teaching of Ammonius. He, in turn, was the teacher of Porphyry. Plotinus was the first of the Neo-Platonists to document his beliefs about God in an organized method. Below is a small sample of his philosophy of God.
A fundamental principle of the philosophy of Plotinus is the identity of the subject and the object, of the cogniser and thing cognised. The office of philosophy should be to gain " a knowledge of the One...["...." part of quotation]..the essence and first principle of all things," not by a process of thought or reasoning, but by an immediate intuition. This One is variously styled by the Being, the One, the God. The three elements of being are Unity, or the One, described as original pure light, pervading space; Intelligence, thenous [nous] emanating from the One, and contemplating it in order to comprehend it; the World-Soul, an emanation from the Nous. These constitute the Trinity of Plotinus (McClintock and Strong, Volume VI, p. 941).
It is necessary to evaluate and summarize the data that has been presented thus far, before continuing. Plato's concept of God revolves around God not being a person, but an Idea of the Good . Plato's god is in control of the universe; he is the indirect creator of all. Plato's god is not the creator of all because a being, called the "Demiurge," was created by the supreme god and placed between himself and the physical universe to act as a mediator.
Philo expanded on the philosophy of Plato. In Philo's theosophy the mediator was called the Logos. Mediation between god and man was mandatory; it was impossible for God to have personal relationships with humanity because He would be defiled upon contact with physical matter. God himself, is imperishable and separate from the world; he cannot suffer, he cannot be seen, he cannot be understood (incomprehensible). The Logos is the image of God in the world. It was the Logos that created the world, spoke to Moses in the burning bush, destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. The Logos could be touched, seen, and understood to a degree. But Philo could not imagine the Logos becoming a man; to him, this was impossible.
Plotinus went one step further by creating a three tier god that was still one being. Plotinus documented his beliefs in a systematic manner.
How can God be a solitary God, absolutely alone in His Deity, if God and Jesus Christ
Philosophy developed a "perfect" answer for the Christians of the post-apostolic church that were seeking an answer. It has been documented that Greek philosophy was necessary to legitimize the new Christian religion with pagan intellectuals. The progression of philosophical thought concerning the nature of God was similar enough to the Christian dogma of the post-apostolic church to make any difference small enough to be of little or no consequence. This is especially true when consideration is given to how philosophical thought bridged the gap between the pagans and Christians. However, a willingness to compromise doctrine is unacceptable, no matter how pretty the package looks from the outside.
I question the degree of influence that the Bible had in the process of obtaining an understanding of the nature of God in the post-apostolic Church. It appears to me that the difficult texts of the Bible were interpreted in the light of philosophical thought instead of referring to biblical texts that were more easily understood.
How can we, finite created beings, expect to know and understand God, an eternal,
The development of this type of question has also been documented by the authors quoted. They have told us that the thought of the day was that God is incomprehensible, unable to touch material things, unable to communicate to mankind directly, and impassible in His nature. This teaching was ingrained into the minds of people seeking to know God throughout history. They were condemned for obeying the Word of God. Eternal life is dependent on our knowledge of God. John 17:3. Yet they were denied that knowledge.
How easy it is to understand that so many people fall into the trap of believing in a doctrine that they cannot understand. They have been programmed by history and the very institutions from which they seek help, to believe that God cannot be understood. This is as far from the truth as the doctrine of the Trinity itself is.
While it is true, we cannot know everything about God, He will show Himself to us if we seek Him. Does the influence of philosophy end now? I am sorry to say, "It has only just begun."
Few Trinitarians will agree with my conclusions. Is this because I am wrong? Or could it be that Trinitarians have 1700 years of tradition and mistakes to protect? The majority of sources that I have quoted from have been Trinitarian authors, with the exception of the philosophical works. Why is it that the philosophers are so confident in their statements concerning the impact of philosophy on Christianity whereas the Church downplays its influence? Could it be because the influence of pagan philosophy is greater than that of the Bible? Such an admission would be a most difficult pill for the Christian orthodox church to swallow, but that is the medicine necessary if the Church is to return to orthodoxy.
1. Julian Marias, Translated from the Spanish by Stanley Appelbaum and Clarence Strowbridge, History of Philosophy. (Dover Publications Inc. New York © 1967).
2. Avrum Stroll and Richard H. Popkin, Introduction to Philosophy, third edition. (Published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, ©1979).
Max Fishler, What the Great Philosophers Thought About God, University Book Publishers, Los Angeles, CA, © 1958.
4. John McClintock and James Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological , and Ecclesiastical Literature , (First published by Harper and Brothers, 1867-1887, Reprinted by Baker Book House Company, 1981).
5. The Readers Digest Great Encycolpedic Dictionary, Including Funk and Wagnells Standard College Dictionary (Pleasantville, New York© 1969).
6. Philo, with an English translation in ten volumes. F.H. Colson, M.A. and Rev. G. H. Whitaker, M.A., translators. T.E. Page, LITT.D., E. Capps, Ph.D., LL.D., W.H. D. Rouse, LITT.D., Editors (The Loeb Classical Library. Published by London: William Heineman Ltd., New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 1929). Volume I, Introduction, pp.ix-xxii.
7. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. © 1910, Reprinted February 1985.
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