23 October, 2016

Amyrauldianism: Historical and Contemporary

[Originally published in the British Reformed Journal, Issue 9 (January - March 1995)]

He spoke truly who said the only lesson history teaches us is that man learns nothing from history.1 Unfortunately, this observation is often just as applicable to the science of theology as to any other realm of thoughtful, systematic, investigation. Yesterday’s heterodoxy becomes today’s accepted norm, and the theology that once would have caused any amount of opposition and revulsion is now often ingrained in the hearts and minds of those who are otherwise most orthodox. As the wise man once stated, “Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us” (Eccles. 1:10).

This article is an attempt to pin down one such doctrinal occurrence, first by drawing a brief historical sketch of an error once condemned by the church of Jesus Christ, then by pointing out the main dogmatic points around which this error was moulded, and finally by drawing parallels between these points and certain theories and hypotheses that are currently held almost as axiomatic by much of the modern Reformed and Presbyterian community. An application of all this can be left to the work of the Holy Spirit in the conscience of the individual reader.

The particular error around which this article is written is that of so-called Amyrauldianism.2 This name is derived from the Latin for the name of the man who was the most influential proponent of the systemMoise Amyraut. Amyrauld, (1596-1664) was in his time both pupil and professor of theology at the Protestant Academy of Saumur in France. The name of this Protestant school is, on account of the views of some of its professors, associated generally with three main departures from the orthodox Reformed position: mediate imputation, mediate regeneration, and hypothetical universalism. The name of Joshua Placaeus (a fellow student of Amyraut under the influential teaching of the Scottish theologian John Cameron) is most closely associated with the first of these, and therefore will not really be the concern of this article. The name of Amyrauld, however, is clearly identified with the other two, and these must be considered in more depth.

Mediate Regeneration

The first of these two doctrines, mediate regeneration, is the more subtle and minor of the two and will be dealt with first. This doctrine teaches that, in the saving work of regeneration on the spiritually dead sinner, the Holy Spirit supernaturally illuminates only the intellect but leaves the will untouched. Due to this living-giving work of the Spirit on the mind it is supposed that the will should be able to follow the light of such sound and practical judgment as is contained in the gospel message. The practical outcome of this teaching is that it is possible for a sinner to be intellectually convinced of the full truth of the gospel and even to have a sound knowledge of his own sin, along with a fear of the dreadful and necessary consequences of his sin, and still be able finally to reject the salvation that is potentially his in the gospel. Instances of this, taken from the Bible, are supposed to be found in men like Felix who trembled, and King Saul who said, “I have sinned,” but who were never (fully) regenerated.

B. B. Warfield was well aware of the implication of this teaching of Amyrauld when he wrote the following about it:

The teaching of these is that God the Holy Spirit accords His suasive [morally persuasive] influences to all alike, making no distinction; but that this universalistically conceived grace of the Holy Spirit takes effect only according as it proves to be actually congruous or incongruous to the state of the mind and heart of those to whom it is equally given.3

In other words, Warfield here observes the teaching of Amyrauld and his followers to be that there is a general or common grace given to all men (both elect and reprobate alike) in the preaching of the gospel that seeks to woo all sinners to come to Christ, but that this influence exhibited can actually be resisted and not accepted by the sinner if his state of will is not in harmony with the serious efforts of the Holy Spirit to save him. And in case any reader should think that the author of this article is, by his comment on universal grace, reading too much into Warfield, let it be said in his defence that it is an easy matter to deduce from any relatively objective source on Amyrauldianism that the idea of a general or common grace of God is central to the whole scheme (see, for example, the entry on Amyrauldianism in the New Dictionary of Theology,4 which says of the Amyrauldian’s view of grace that “grace is seen as universal in the provision of salvation but as particular in the application of it”).

It is interesting at this point to notice that Warfield has hit on an inconsistency in historic Amyrauldianism that is held by many contemporary Calvinists, that is, that there exists a connection between a common, universal, grace shown in providence to all (which, by definition, is supposed to have nothing to do with salvation, but rather be concerned with the temporal goodness of God to a cursed world), and the preaching of the gospel (which, by definition, is the means of saving grace to God’s elect). To those who say, therefore, that there is a gracious overture to all sinners in the gospel offer, it might validly be asked: What sort of grace is this? If common, what has it to do with the gospel of salvation at all? If saving, how can it be resisted, and to what extent is it universal? This inconsistency finds its origins in Amyrauldianism.

In contemporary Reformed Theology there has been raised of late a similar question concerning the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the saved reprobate that so vexed theologians during the Amyrauldian controversy. This debate has been particularly centred on a reference that appears in the Westminster Confession (X, iv) and the Larger Catechism (A. 68). The reference is to “the common operations of the Spirit” which are performed on the non-elect.

The issue is not whether the Spirit supernaturally restrains sin in the unregenerate (though there are many other reasons why men do not commit every sin imaginable, e.g., lack of time, lack of resources, fear of the consequences, instinct to self-preservation). Rather, it is whether good works can be done by the unregenerate because of these common operations that are, supposedly, of a spiritual nature. These works would include seeking or thirsting for Christ, understanding the true excellency of the Christian life, or desiring to be free from both the power and consequences of sin. To put it in simple terms, Is the one who thirsts for spiritual waters (Isaiah 55:1), who labours and is heavy laden under the false yoke of sin (Matt. 11:28), a regenerate person who has not yet come self-consciously to faith in Christ, or an unregenerate person who is under the “common operations of the Spirit”? The answer given to this question will show the extent to which the reader has been unconsciously influenced by Amyrauldianism.

In fact, as the context to each one of the references to an offer in the Westminster Confession and Larger Catechism (all which are concerned with the effectual call of the gospel which comes to the elect in preaching) as well as the antecedent phrase, “called by the ministry of the Word” which always precedes them, the Westminster divines saw this “common operation” to be external rather than internal. This fits in very well with what has always been the Calvinist interpretation of such verses as Acts 7:51, in which the resistance made by these persons was not to a direct working of the Spirit in them, but rather to the working of the Spirit in His ministersnot any operation of grace, but the external call of the Word. Furthermore, as Zech. 7:11-12 and other verses clearly show, to refuse the Spirit of God is to reject the words spoken by His ministers. This resistance is not a refusal to accept the offer, but simply a refusal to hear the preaching of the Word of God. And it is this external and objective proclamation of truth that the Holy Spirit uses in addressing and, by irresistible grace, drawing His elect.

An answer to the question lies in a true understanding of the nature of regeneration, which was obviously the main issue at stake during the Amyrauldian debate. Before regeneration the sinner is totally depravedtotal depravity being the Reformed doctrine that every man in every part is completely contaminated and dominated by sin to the extent that he is unable to perform any spiritually good action and so cannot in any way please God. In other words, he is completely spiritually dead in the sense of being completely void both of all spiritual life and of manifestation of that life in spiritual activities. But in regeneration the sinner is given a new heart (Ezek. 36:26). In Scriptural psychology the heart is the central organ of the soul and includes not only feelings, desires, and emotions but also the intellect, will, and conscience. Contrary to what the Amyrauldians taught, it would therefore be impossible for the Spirit to enlighten one area of the heart (the intellect) without also enlightening all (including the will), as the heart is one indissoluble, single organic, whole. Also, contrary to what some unwitting modern disciples of Amyrauld teach, it is impossible for the Holy Spirit to quicken some parts of the heart by a general operation (e.g., the desires) so that a sinner can truly long for or seek Christ, and yet not also quicken the rest by a saving operation, thereby enabling the sinner to come to Christ.

Hypothetical Universalism

The second of the two doctrines is that of Hypothetical Universalism, and is important not only theologically, but also practically, as it affects the very contents of the preaching of the gospel. “Hypothetical Universalism” is a confusing term, because it immediately seems so obviously Arminian that no Reformed person would hold to it. But in fact, it was the sincere intention of Amyrauld to condemn the Arminian universal atonement scheme, while trying to soften some of the harsher aspects of double predestination and the consistent particularism that it implies.

I myself realize the need, when attempting to define hypothetical universalism, for as much historical objectivity as can be mustered, for it would be easy to give a definition that would be loaded and would support my thesis implicitly. Therefore I will opt for quoting from other (well-known and respected) sources, thus finding a common denominator acceptable to all.

Amyrauld taught that the divine motive behind redemption was benevolence toward all men as the result of which God sent His Son to make the salvation of all men possible. He offers salvation to all men, upon condition5 that they believe in Christ.6

He [Amyrauld] claimed that God, moved by His love for all mankind, had appointed all human beings to salvation provided they repent and believe.7

This scheme [of hypothetical universalism] is perfectly illusory, in representing God as decreeing to send Christ to provide a redemption to be offered to all, on condition of faith, and this out of His general compassion.8

These three quotations will suffice, though the number could easily be multiplied, to show the structure in which Amyrauld worked, and the initial premises he accepted as true at the commencement of his enquiries. Like all theologians, Amyrauld did not arrive at the doctrines of mediate regeneration or hypothetical universalism in a vacuum of thought, but came to them as conclusions after a process of reasoning. The premises he accepted at the outset of this process can be deduced from these quotations, and will be dealt with each in turn. These are: first, that God has a love to all men; second, that there is a potential salvation for all men; third, that this salvation is offered to all men; and fourth, that faith is a universal condition for accepting this offered salvation.

First, then, the love of God to all. When people say that there is a certain sense in which God loves or shows lovingkindness to all men, what is usually missing is a good biblical definition of what they mean by love. This criticism is applicable to the whole “common grace” and “free-offer” debate. There is a lack of consistent definition as to what exactly these terms mean to those who defend them. The reason for this seems to lie in the fact that there is a great diversity of thought as to what they actually do mean. For example, it is my suspicion that most Reformed lay people mean by “common grace” merely the general providence that God has over all His creatures, by which He gives them good things they do not deserve. And by the phrase “free-offer,” they mean simply that the gospel should be preached to all sinners promiscuously alike and that all should be called to repent and believe with the promise that there is salvation for those who do. However, those who defend these two theories in lectures and in books tend to mean far more by them than this. And it is in this extended and sophisticated sense that they are rejected by others.

The closest thing the Scriptures come to defining love is in Colossians 3:14, where love is said to be the “bond of perfectness.” This fits in well with the more technical theological idea that God’s love is a perfection of God by which He delights in His own perfections and in men as far as they reflect His perfect image. But since man lost the image of God at the fall, God sees only His reflected image in those who have either been given it or decreed to be given it, i.e., the elect. This biblical view that the image of God consists only in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24 and Col. 3:10) must be stressed over against the Roman Catholic conception of the image of God as consisting in the spirituality or the immortality of the soul, the freedom of the will, and the rationality of the mind. And it must be underlined that love is an actual attribute of God rather than an attitude or sentiment. Because of this it is part of God Himself, as God is not essence and attributes, as though His attributes were something outside of His real self that could be freely controlled. Rather God is essence in attributes (hence the teaching of I John 4:8, 16). God, then, is to be thought of as necessary rather than free in the exercise of His attributes, and a change in the exercise of a particular attribute implies therefore a corresponding change in God Himself. It is therefore not valid to say that, because God is sovereign, He can begin to love whom He wants, when He wants, and for how long He wants. This makes God guilty of purely arbitrary indifference rather than rational self-determination. Also, it should be noted that the doctrine of the immutability of God regards not only His eternal Being (and therefore His attributes) but also the purposeful exercise of His Being in the world of space and time.

Negatively, the theory that God loves all men is, of course, in plain contradiction to the teaching of the Scripture (e.g., Ps. 5:5, Ps. 11:5, Mal. 1:3, Rom. 9:13). Positively, the Scriptures confirm that God loves only His people. An example of this can be seen in the doctrine of election. Why are some chosen to life and some not? Simply because God only loved some, and thus only chose some. Thus “foreknowledge” in Romans 8:29 is equivalent to “forelove” and is the ground of our predestination to glorification. This loving choice of God involves two elementsaetiology (the study of original causes) and teleology (the study of purposeful ends). The cause of our election and salvation is found in the love of God to us. But this electing love also shapes our final destiny and end both as far as this life is concerned (Eph. 2:10) and ultimately in that which is to come (Rom. 8:29). These two elements become applicable and important when we consider the “problem of good.” In most radical modern forms of the common grace theory it is argued that, because God in this life gives good and unmerited gifts to the reprobate wicked, this means that He must have a temporary favour or love for them. But the cause of God giving these things must be sought in the end or purpose God has ordained for them, just as the reason God afflicts and brings evil upon the righteous must be sought in His end purposes for them. In both cases, the way in which God views these two different types of people cannot be understood without specific reference to His final purposes concerning them. Such passages as Proverbs 16:4 and more particular Psalm 73:17, 18, show clearly that, since the end purpose of God towards the reprobate wicked is wrath and destruction, the cause of Him giving them good things is to prepare them for this end, and so cannot be an expression of love.

Secondly, the whole issue of hypothetical universalism centres around God’s purposes with regard not only to the non-elect, but around the question, “What did God want or will or desire the death of Christ to achieve?” Universalists teach that Christ died for all, and that all will then be saved. Arminians teach that Christ died for none in particular, so making all potentially savable. Calvinists teach that Christ died only for the elect, and that He completely secured their salvation “to the uttermost.” Although Amyrauld proffered allegiance to the Calvinistic creed of the Synod of Dordt (which was the original rebuttal of Arminianism), his position is actually a mediate one between Calvinism and Arminianism. John Owen summed up the theory as follows:

Christ died for all, but (only) conditionally for some, if they do believe, or will do so (which He knows they cannot do by themselves); and absolutely (or unconditionally) for His own, even those on whom He purposeth to bestow faith and grace, so as actually to be made possessors of the good things by Him purchased.9

The essence of the problem is this: whom does God will or desire to be saved? Only His people? Or is there a sense in which God wants or wills or desires the salvation of all men, either in His decrees, or in the cross of Christ, or in the preaching of the gospel? Charles Hodge, in his brilliant critique of the Amyrauldian scheme pinpoints this as the main error of Amyrauld. And it must be noted that these three are related in such a way that if one is made universal then they all must be universal. The preaching of the gospel is not universal in that, while the sound of the preaching goes to all (the call to faith), its promises of life and salvation are particular and addressed to the elect. If these gracious promises are seen as universal in the preaching of the gospel, it means that God actually possesses salvation for all men to be able to offer it sincerely to all, thus implying a universal atonement of Christ through which they were purchased for all.

It cannot however be supposed that God intends what is never accomplished; that He purposes what He does not intend to effect; that He adopts means for an end which is never to be attained. This cannot be affirmed of any rational being who has the wisdom and power to secure His purposes. Much less can it be said of Him whose power and wisdom are infinite. If all men are not saved, God never purposed their salvation, and never devised and put into operation the means designed to accomplish that end.10

But can it be that, while God particularly purposes the salvation only of the elect in His decree, yet He has a loving desire that goes beyond His decree and is not satisfied by the effects of the decree? This is what Amyrauld, the “Universal Calvinist” taught, and it is also what many contemporary Calvinists believe. But what does Hodge have to say about this matter with regard to Amyrauld?

The motive (so to speak) of God in sending His Son is not, as the theory assumes, general benevolence or that love of which all men equally are the objects, but that particular mysterious, infinite love in which God, in giving His Son, gives Himself and all conceivable and possible good.11

And, by inference, if God does not have benevolence to the reprobate wicked in Christ, and in Christ alone, where is to be found all conceivable and possible good, it is logical to conclude that, since the non-elect are by definition outside Christ, God can have no love or favour to them at all.

There are contemporary Calvinists who hold, like Amyrauld, that God has two contradictory wills or desires. According to this theory, God in His decretive will desires the salvation of only the elect, but in His preceptive will desires the salvation of all sinners. The most obvious fallacy involved with this is the violence it does to God’s character in saying that He is subject to divine schizophrenia (New Latin, “split mind”), and to the character of God’s special revelation in saying that it does not give an adequate or even true picture of “the way things really are” as God decrees them. Furthermore, the fact that God wills the salvation of only some is revealed in His preceptive will (or else we would not know about it), and that we have a special revelation or preceptive will at all is due to the fact that it is contained in God’s decretive will. The proper distinction is rather between God’s will of decree (which deals with the indicative—what we will do) and His will of command (which deals with the imperativewhat we ought to do). The use of grammatical terms at this point is deliberate. Those who hold to two different and differing wills and desires in God usually violate a simple law of logic in their exegesis by making indicative inferences from imperative sentences.

These “two wills” must be seen as different aspects of the same simple will and desire of God, and both are equally concerned with the conversion of the elect and the hardening of the reprobate (as with Pharaoh). From an exegetical perspective, those verses usually quoted to support this double will are expressed in purely Arminian terms, showing the true roots of Amyrauldianism.

Third, we come to the word “offer” and all that it entails. It is not my desire here to go into the whole issue of the external call of the gospel and its relation both to the eternal decrees of God and the cross of Christ.12 Rather I will limit my thoughts to a few comments. The word “offer” is used in most of the Reformed creeds and has been used by Calvinists since the Reformation itself. But the question is not, “Did they use it?” so much as, “What did they mean by it?” Two methods for answering this question can be put forward. The first method is by examination of the etymology of the word “offer,” that is, the way in which the word and its meaning have developed historically. David Engelsma says in his book, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel:

It is of no consequence, therefore, that the term “offer” appears in Calvin, in other Reformed theologians, and in such Reformed creeds as the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith. The word “offer” has originally a sound meaning: “serious call,” “presentation of Christ.”13

That C. H. Spurgeon also saw the word “offer” in these terms can be deduced from his redefinition of the 86th answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in “Spurgeon’s Catechism,” where, in answer 69, the phrase, “as He is offered to us in the gospel,” is rendered “as He is set forth in the gospel.”

The second method is that of analysing the context in which the word “offer” appears in the works of Reformed authors. William Cunningham will be taken as a typical example of one such author who uses the word “offer” both often and freely. The question is not only, “What did he mean by it?” But also, “What did he NOT mean by it?” and, “What were his grounds for using it?” To the modern propagator of the offer, and to his Amyrauldian forebears, it is held to be a gracious desire of God to have all men saved, the ground of it being either in His universal love and mercy for all, or even in the general sufficiency and universal availability of the atonement of Christ for all. So then, for Cunningham, what was the free offer of the gospel? He says:

[There is] no reason why Calvinists should hesitate to follow the course, which Scripture so plainly sanctions and requires, of proclaiming the glad tidings of salvation to all men indiscriminately, without any distinction or exception, setting forth, without hesitation or qualification, the fullness and freeness of the gospel offers and invitations [Note: now follows a definition of what exactly he means by this],—of inviting, encouraging, and requiring every descendant of Adam with whom they come into contact [Note: here showing that the gospel message must be preached to all], to come to Christ and lay hold of Him [Note: here showing that the gospel message contains a universal command], with the assurance that those who do come to Him He will in no wise reject [Note: here showing that the gospel message also contains a particular promise of salvation addressed to the elect under various names, e.g., “those who do come”].14

What is the ground or warrant for making this offer? Is it the mercy and love of God to all sinners? Is it God’s desire or will for all sinners’ salvation? Or is it the sufficient death of Christ for all sinners? Cunningham says:

The sole ground or warrant for men’s act, in offering pardon and salvation to their fellow men, is the authority and command of God in His Word. We have no other warrant than this; we need no other, and we should seek or desire none!15

Is there any limitation to this offer of the gospel as far as God is concerned? Or in the preaching of the gospel does God forget or bypass His decree and will and desire suddenly that all should accept the offer and be saved?

Calvinists, while they admit that pardon and salvation are offered indiscriminately to all to whom the gospel is preached, and that all who can be reached should be invited and urged to come to Christ and embrace Him, deny that this flows from, or indicates, any desire or purpose on God’s part to save all men.16

Fourth, and finally, there is the issue of conditions in salvation. This is an issue, in my opinion, over which both conflicting contemporary sides have to some degree misunderstood each other. As shown before, the theological motif of condition is important to the Amyrauldian scheme. However, the word is also used in the Westminster Standards. Did the two mean it in the same sense? It is proposed here that they did not. So, what then does “condition” mean?

In logic, a conditional proposition is an “if … then …” statement. Take, for example, the sentence, “If you cut yourself, then you will bleed,” which says that the second part of the sentence (the bleeding) will come about if the first part of the sentence has been fulfilled (the cutting). This seems all very well, but the problem comes when the conditional proposition is applied to theological issues, primarily because of the element of causation between the first part of the sentence (called the antecedent) and the second part (called the consequent). To apply this theologically, let us consider Acts 16:31, which basically says, “If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then you will be saved and your house.” This is a conditional proposition, and it is in this simple sense that the Westminster divines meant it to be taken, for example, in the 32nd Question of the Larger Catechism. Now the problem arises when we seek consistently to apply this causal explanation to the verse, and come to the erroneous conclusion that we are saved because we have believed, rather than the Calvinistic conclusion that we believe because we have been saved, as the Catechism itself goes on to show (all Calvinists agree that Acts 16:31 does not mean, “If you believe, then this act will cause you to be saved,” but rather, “If you exercise the gift of faith, then you have the promise that God has saved you”). It is because of this confusion that conditions in salvation have been validly denied by some theologians who are zealous to maintain the status of faith as an effect of salvation rather than cause. But in the system of Amyrauld, faith was seen as man’s work in salvation insofar as he accepted the offer freely and without which God was thus not able to save. All Calvinists agree as to the falsehood of this.

To conclude (but not apply), Amyrauldianism in its time was considered a dangerous error rather than an outright heresy, but through the centuries has been kept alive in increasing subtlety by moderate and universalistic Calvinists. It lives today primarily through the modern radical interpretations of the theories of common grace and the well-meant or free offer of the gospel. The present author holds that while there is not much intrinsically wrong with the phrases themselves, properly understood in their original uses, the definitions attached to them usually now go far beyond what those who first propagated them meant by them. Some might even consider it a better thing to drop these phrases altogether, as Luther thought it better to drop the term “free-will,” though it is possible to give them (and it) biblically sound definitions. Others might not. Whatever the outcome, it is hoped that this article will cause some stirring of thought in the minds of those whose views are condemned in it, and will serve to encourage those who know their Bibles and history and regard the slippery-slope decline in much of contemporary Reformed and Presbyterian thought to be directly traceable back to the errors of Amyrauld.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *


1. G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), German Idealist philosopher, appointed Professor at the University of Berlin in 1818, where he became famous and influential, and is so right down to our modern times. He is the originator of the “dialectic” system of reasoning, which has permeated the modern world, teaching that two mutually simultaneous contradictories can be both simultaneously true, and that we ought to hold the two contradictory elements in tension together. This idea underlies Marxist Dialectic Materialism, and Barthian Theology.

2. Amyrauldianism: otherwise known as “New Light,” or “New Methodism,” or “Hypothetical Universalism” (Ed.).

3. B. B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation, p. 94.

4. Publ. IVP, Leicester, 1988. Article by Roger Nicole, an expert on Amyrauld.

5. If proof is needed that the whole idea of conditions in salvation was of vital importance to the Amyrauldians see Berkhof’s History of Christian Doctrines, pages 153 and 190, where the motive of condition is shown to be central to both the Amyrauldian’s view of the decree and of the atonement.

6. Cf. Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms, pp. 67 and 68.

7. IVP, New Dictionary of Theology, Leic., 1988 article cited, page 17.

8. R. L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, p. 235.

9. Cf. John Owen, “The Death of Death,” Works, Vol. X, page 222. This quote is rather frightening when we consider how closely it parallels the views of some contemporary Calvinists on the nature of the covenant of grace.

10. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 323-324.

11. Ibid., p. 324.

12. This has already been done excellently by the contemporary theologian, John H. Gerstner, in his book on Dispensationalism, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Brentwood, Tennessee, Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1991). The present author asks all interested parties in the whole free-offer controversy to read pages 118-131 of this book. A clearer and more decisive analysis could not be hoped for!

13. David Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Reformed Fre Publishing Association, 1st Edition, 1980), p. 81, and in second, enlarged edition (1994), p. 140.

14. William Cunningham, D. D., The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p. 401.

15. Cunningham, Historical Theology, Vol. II, p. 347.

16. Ibid., Vol. II, p. 396.


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