A dialogue with Karl Barth re the importance of preaching in the Church

A dialogue with Karl Barth and his massive Church Dogmatics. In Section 1.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God, in Chapter  1 Barth begins with a discussion about the importance of proclamation or preaching.  In particular he dialogues with Paul Tillich.   I am using the translation of his second edition by G W Bromiley,  London/New York, T& T Clark International, paperback edition, 2004 (1936)  p 47.  Barth’s quotations are in italics. My comments are non-italicized. Barth writes a little like Calvin…he states a bold idea and then begins to hedge around it in such a way that you begin to agree with him once you accept all his “possible alternatives” to his initial bold statement.

CHAPTER 1: THE WORD OF GOD AS THE CRITERION OF DOGMATICS (p47)

B. CHURCH PROCLAMATION AS THE MATERIAL OF DOGMATICS.

  1. TALK ABOUT GOD AND CHURCH PROCLAMATION.

 p47-48  Nor all human talk is talk about God. It could be and should be. There is no reason in principle why it should not be. God is the Lord from whom and to whom we exist. …We do not know man, i.e. ourselves, as man in his original estate and therefore as the man of the kingdom of glory….We know ourselves only as the man to whom mercy is shown as one who is fallen, lost and condemned. 

 Only the believer knows this condemnation. The natural man knows only deep down that he or she is lost and “his heart is restless until he finds his rest in Thee”.  There is no point in trying to show non-believers that they have offended against God’s will for their lives. What we can do is live as joyfully and faithfully as we can striving with all our might for the fulfilment of God’s kingdom on earth and caring for the earth.  We can extend God’s love to everyone we meet and encourage them to hear and see God in the wonder and beauty of creation,  and if they are willing, to look into the Word itself and encouraging them to listen to their inner self and conscience. We have a particular responsibility to our own family. 

We stand under the sign of a decision constantly taken between the secularity and the sanctification of our existence, between sin and grace, between a being which forgets God, which is absolutely neutral in relation to Him and therefore absolutely hostile, and one which in His revelation is awakened by faith[fulness] to being in the Church. 

p48  Barth opposes Paul Tillich’s view in Kirche und Kultur, 1924, p10f that from God’s standpoint the historical Church has no advantage over historical society, that revelation is addressed equally to society and the Church [which seems to be what Romans 2 is saying] and that the “invisible community” can be equally proclaimed and actualized  ‘from the religious and cultural angles.’  But Barth does admit that Certainly, God is not bound to the historical Church. He is free and able to raise up children to Abraham from the stones. 

I agree with Barth that the deep fellowship, excitement and joy that comes from a loving Christian fellowship is a particular gift from God and should be cherished when it occurs but the reality is that churches, too, are fallen and in need of forgiveness and some churches  and church leaders/members do and have done damage to folk that  non-Christians do not experience; also of course, being a committed believer inevitably brings secular persecution. There is no value in weighing up degrees of “happiness” between the churched and non-churched. “The rain rains on the just and on the just (but chiefly on the just because the unjust steals the just’s umbrella!). I think both Tillich and Barth have a point here!

p49  Only in faith[fulness]  is being in the Church visible as divine election and  sanctification. What is visible in itself is simply an event within the secular sphere.  Barth quotes Luther, Fastenpostille, 1525..the Gospel is not an eternal, lasting, static doctrine, but like a moving shower of rain which strikes what it strikes and misses what it misses….Barth comments: The one who is awakened and gathered to being in the Church has every cause for full assurance of faith[fulness] but none at all for certainty or over-confidence….the being of man in the Church “ubi et quando visum est Deo”  [“where and when it pleases God”] is a true and concrete event….

Not all talk in the Church’s worship seeks to be proclamation. It does not seek to be such when it is talk addressed by man to God…[this talk is]   a response to God of the praise, confession and thanksgiving of those to whom proclamation concerning Him has come.

p50 …other elements in the life of the Church ..cannot seek to be proclamation e.g. the expression of helpful solidarity in the face of the external needs of human society. [prayers for the world and its people]. Barth cites Matthew 5:14. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. …If God exists for man …then this man…must also exist for his fellow -men……[yet this intercession for the world] is primarily and properly directed to God and not to men. It can neither try to enter into quite superfluous competition with society’s necessary efforts at self-help…..Like prayer, praise and confession, especially in cases like Francis of Assisi and Bodelschwingh, it has always been spontaneous and unpremeditated, and in the final and best sense unpractical talk about God. 

 [Friedrich von Bodelschwingh (1831-1910)..German priest, theologian, politician and social worker; founded schools, charities for the handicapped and the first savings bank.]

p51 The education of youth has to teach and not to convert, not to bring to a decision, and to this extent does not proclaim.  

Finally, according to our understanding of the matter, neither can theology as such claim to be proclamation. It, too, is talk about God to men. Proclamation, however, is its presupposition, its material, its practical goal, not its content or task. Theology reflects upon proclamation. It confronts it as a court of criticism….it is …testing the coherence of modern proclamation by the original and dominant being of the Church, and of giving directions for its correct and relevant continuation….there will unavoidably be invasions of the sphere of proclamation, and they will often be highly appropriate as reminders of the theme. But, here, too, the exceptions prove the rule, namely, that theology as such is not proclamation, but science, instruction and investigation.

p51-2 The talk about God to be found in the Church, however, is meant to be proclamation when it is directed to men with the definitive claim and expectation that it has to declare the Word of God to them. Barth quotes 1 Thessalonians 2:13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 

 [note this: the word of God works in us…we need to read it constantly and hear it so it is able freely to work in us.]

 Barth  also quotes 1 Peter 4:11a whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God… and 2 Corinthians 2:17..For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word; but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.

p52  Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks, and therefore heard and accepted in faith as divine decision concerning life and death, as divine judgment and pardon, eternal Law and eternal Gospel both together. 

[Note: “life and death” can refer to how we die and how we deal with living and dying in this life and how we live in this life; “pardon” is the opposite of judgment for those who have faithfulness; for the non-believer the opposite of judgment is not necessarily eternal death….it could be a “hell of accountability” facing up to the true Christ” after death and leading to salvation within the eternal love of God…in what way who knows although we know that those of faithfulness will rule in that world…perhaps they will be teachers and mentors;  the κοσμος is a big place!  I think there will be much to do! à la Billy Graham in an interview long ago with Mike Willissee. Ideas like this do not reduce the urgency of proclamation in this life. As Hebrews notes this is the only life on this unredeemed earth we will ever have..it should be a life of joy, beauty in brokenness, harmony and faithfulness…it is tragic that folk should be living lives and relationships of such harsh misery and misfunction.]

Nor does God’s own Word cease to be itself when it allows itself to be served by human utterance. But as it allows itself to be served by it, it is itself his human utterance, and as this human utterance serves it, it is itself God’s own Word.  For a proper explanation of this “is” we should have to refer even at this stage to the Christological doctrine of the two natures.

It is a decisive part of the insight of all true prophecy that man as such has no possibility of uttering the Word of God. What human utterance concerning God aims to be when it is intended as proclamation is….a means of grace.

p53 Thus proclamation is not asked concerning its formal or material perfection…it is simply asked whether it is service, whether it is commissioned…the διακονια του λογου (Acts 6:4) (the ministry of the word).  Barth quotes Luther: Festpostille: …thou shouldest flee as from hell from speaking a single word, except thou shouldest be bidden and called thereto…none will do any good by preaching except he who is bidden and forced to preach without his own will or desire…but whoso teacheth uncalled, teacheth not without harm, both to himself and the hearers, for that Christ is not with him.

p54 If the Church is visible, this need not imply that we actually see it in its full compass, that the dimensions of its sphere might not be very different from what we think we know them to be. God may suddenly be pleased to have Abraham blessed by Melchizedek, or Israel blessed by Balaam or helped by Cyrus….He can establish the Church anew and directly when and where and  how it pleases Him…..Hence it can never be the case that the Word of God is confined to the proclamation of the existing Church, or to the proclamation of the Church as known to us, or to the talk about God in this known Church which specially claims to be proclamation. Church proclamation itself, in fact, regards itself only as service of the Word of God, as a means of grace in God’s free hand. Hence it cannot be master of the Word nor try to regard the Word as confined within its own borders.

p55 [On the other hand]…a philosophy of culture [eg Paul Tillich] may very well reflect upon things, including an “unconditioned” or a “far side of being” discerned elsewhere than in the command. But it must not imagine that in so doing it has even touched the task of theology.

God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does. But, unless we regard ourselves as the prophets and founders of a new Church, we cannot say that we are commissioned to pass on what we have heard as independent proclamation. God may speak to us through a pagan or  an atheist, and thus give us to understand that the boundary between the Church and the secular world can still take a different course from that which we think we discern. Yet this does not mean that we ourselves have to proclaim the pagan or atheistic thing which we have heard. [i.e. proclaim it as the Church.]

p56  But what is this specially commissioned proclamation of the Church which it must accept as a commission to and for men?….

  1. This proclamation is preaching, i.e., the attempt by someone called thereto in the Church, in the form of the exposition of some portion of the Biblical witness to revelation, to express in his own words and to make intelligible to the men of his own generation the promise of the revelation, reconciliation and vocation of God..
  2. This proclamation is the sacrament….visible, sacred signs and seals appointed by God…(Heidelburg Confession)…namely that for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the Cross He graciously grants us remission of sins and eternal life.[But the question remains: who is “us”? Is it just “our particular group? or is it that Christ died while we were yet ungodly (Romans) ..for the sins of the whole world  (AAPB)]

iii)p 57-59  ….[God]  also and specifically wills that God’s own Word should be proclaimed in and through His Church. [based on Matthew 28:19f]….Again if this announcement is to be legitimate repetition of not just any promise, but of the promise given to the Church by God Himself, then it cannot be arbitrary religious discourse. It must be homily, i.e., discourse which as the exposition of Scripture is controlled and guided….it cannot consist in the mere reading of Scripture or in repeating or paraphrasing the actual wording of the biblical witness….the person called must be ready to make the promise given to the Church intelligible in his own words to the men of his own time. Calling, promise, exposition of Scripture, actuality—-these are the decisive definitions of the concept of preaching….

p60 How is this to happen inasmuch as proclamation must be unambiguously identical with preaching? [It is not just] higher instruction in religion and morals [or] the expression of the personal  piety of the person concerned…it represents the character of promise as event and grace in contrast to all man’s work on the level of human occurrence….it has to be action.

p61 [proclamation] has to be action demanded and controlled by the biblical witness. Again, like preaching, it cannot seek to replace the Word of God itself…it can only be a serving of God’s Word…as word in human thought and expression, …it cannot represent..revelation, reconciliation and calling …as the act of divine grace…enacted once and for all in the epiphany of Jesus Christ.

..promise…action in distinction to mere word, conformity to Scripture, representative symbolical connection with the ‘once -for-all of revelation— these are the decisive definitions of the concept of sacrament.

…we should not omit to point away from the exegesis and back to the actual text before us.

p61-2 Modernist dogmatics is finally unaware of the fact that in relation to God man has constantly to let something be said to him, has constantly to listen to something which he constantly does not know and which in no circumstances and in no sense can he say to himself. Modernist dogmatics hears man answer when no one has called him. It hears him speak with himself. For it, therefore, proclamation is a necessary expression of the life of the human community known as the “Church.” 

p62 Barth moves from the above to criticize Schleiermacher and Tillich because we are forced to conjecture that here too man is finally conceived of as conversing only with himself. Barth quotes Tillich: (Relig.Verwirkl) “..One has a right to say that e.g., Christ and Buddha are symbols in so far as they are a representation of what is ultimately intended in the religious act….the truth of a symbol rests upon its inner necessity for the symbol-creating consciousness…”

p63  Barth replies to Tillich:  …But then Logos in its isolation as word spoken back and forth necessarily becomes one symbol among many others. …The question now becomes in all seriousness: Why do I choose precisely these symbols, talk about God and this form of it, namely, actual exposition of the Bible, along with these two or seven sacraments? Are these really the truest symbols when my spiritual nature should and would express itself. Might there not be truer symbols than these?  

 [I find this a strange way to criticize other symbols of God’s love and power to say they are not “as true” as biblical word and sacrament. The early Fathers argued e.g. that when the pagan philosophers e.g. Plato spoke true words we should accept them as the truth even though they are not found directly in the Bible.  Likewise Paul writes in Romans 1:20  that “God’s invisible nature namely his eternal power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  Surely a beautiful leaf or flower, or mountain view, a morning in the desert,  or woodland river, or work of human creation can by a symbol of God’s truth and lead us closer to him. To reject all of this out of hand is unnecessary. Yes the bible contains words that God can use to transform our lives but it is the Spirit which achieves this so we worship God in Spirit we do not worship the bible, and indeed à la P T Forsyth we “criticize” the bible textually etc and interpret the bible (in literal form etc) legitimately.  What the bible does do which a leaf or a flower or a painting cannot do, is “reveal the ways of God to us” (e.g. Psalm 103:7). God has chosen Israel and the apostolic witness to the incarnate Logos to be a light in the world. Yet it is clear from the bible itself that God as Barth himself wrote earlier that God can also speak through a Melchizedek, a Cyrus, a Balaam  or even an ass! As for Barth’s question how do we choose which symbol? Surely we don’t have to…Let God be God and let us rejoice in his creation.

A more important question might be ..”is there a hierarchy of revelation”? Can we relate to God without the bible. The answer must be yes. Abraham and Moses had no bible yet they heard God speaking to them and responded. Yes God has sent us messengers, prophets, priests and apostles but above all he has written a covenant by his Spirit into our hearts. We value what the saints of old have written down about God’s revelation and we collect and try to preserve their words but God does not “need” human councils and creeds to express himself to us. (and indeed sometimes the human formulations and translations can be unhelpful and lead us astray.) Above all we are led astray if we set up our own understanding of the bible as the ONLY expression of the boundless love of God. So how do we answer Tillich and the hierarchy question?? In my view we should NOT ignore any of God’s gifts..our conscience,  the wonder of creation, AND the written word of God…God has chosen these agents to teach and inspire us …the written word is a light to our path. To play down this revelation is as ridiculous as to live in a house in a beautiful place and never go out and enjoy it or even look out the window! After all, the basics of human living…love, honesty, caring,  character, endurance, integrity …these are not rocket science…where we find them we should cherish them. Similarly murder, theft, terror, anger, hubris, cheating, aggression, selfishness are to be avoided and opposed.. God has chosen to reveal himself to us in his written word. We should not ignore or marginalise it.  After all, Tillich would have had nothing to write or think about if generations of theologians had not thought deeply and written before him.  God’s revealed word can give us clarity, encouragement and inspiration.  But to ignore or play down other symbols is unnecessary.  How do we choose which symbols?  There is no short cut.  We live, read, talk, discuss, serve, examine, think and we make judgments and learn to trust what is good and useful and to be careful of what is shoddy, untrustworthy, inadequate. It is called “living” and we live to God in the whole of his revelation. I value both Barth and Tillich but Tillich does not discriminate enough and Barth discriminates too much!]

 p63  Barth opposes Tillich’s rejection of ultimate revelation in the bible e.g. Tillich: “..it is quite wrong to equate the Word as a symbol of the self-impartation of transcendent being with the Word as the physical medium of the self comprehension and impartation of the human spirit, and in this way to mix up God’s Word and the word of Scripture or the word of preaching…Word is not only present when it is spoken and conceived but Word is also present when it is spoken in powerful symbols”…..Protestantism has  largely forgotten this. Verbum, the Word of revelation, may (!) be in everything in which spirit expresses itself, even in the silent symbols of art, even in the works of society and law….and that means that nothing less than the whole of life of society in every aspect is ordained to be symbolically powerful of God. [Theology and Culture, 1924]

 [Tillich has surely gone too far here…many aspects of “the whole of life in society” are shot through with eroticism, vanity, neuroticisim, envy, concupiscence, greed, hubris, atheism, corruption, shallow thinking, ignorance, stupidity, covetousness, insincerity, selfishness, narcissism, and just plain human pride and desire for autonomy and its refusal to bow to any authority other than its own “will to power”…and this is just the short list.  These aspects of life or society are definitely not “symbolically powerful of God.”!]

p63  Barth is whimsical about the Berneuchener movement..an evangelical Lutheran youth movement in Germany in the 1920s designed to throw off the influence of liberal theology and  included artistic symbols and other various cheerful things of a similar nature [which] now have a chance of entering into not wholly purposeless rivalry with preaching, which has become less relevant ever since e.g. Julius Smend, Herbert Birtner, O. Dibelius (less preaching! More action and  more of other forms of proclamation!) …Inspiration is needed in poets and in religious speakers…

[ I have some sympathy with this approach but surely it can be combined with preaching. It doesn’t have to be “all art” or “all poetry” or “all philosophy” but it doesn’t hurt to include human reflection or allusion to lighten and vary the sermonic monotone. After all, Jesus himself summarised “the law and the prophets” in his own words and chose “purple patches” from Isaiah to highlight his own teaching. Genuinely original thinkers seldom quote directly from others but most mere mortals can do with a bit of help from the greats!]

p63 Barth asks: Why proclamation at all? Why symbols at all? Why not better be silent? Why not, as the truest word we can utter, renounce all special talk about God, all use of symbols whatsoever?  [This is the way of mysticism or pietism and of Aquinas after his vision when he determined not to say anything more ever again]

p64 Again Barth quotes Tillich:  Undoubtedly the supreme aim of a theological work should be to discover the point at which reality itself speaks unsymbolically both of itself and also of the unconditional, to discover the point at which reality itself without a symbol becomes a symbol, at which the antithesis between reality and symbol is removed… [Rel. Verwiirkl. p.208]

Barth comments:  Understanding of the concept of Proclamation along these lines can end only with its dissolution. Proclamation as self-expression must in the long run turn out to be a superfluous and impossible undertaking….What is the Church, what is it meant to be, if it has no centre, if man is not really addressed in it? Can the truth of its being really be that man is alone in and with his world?  ….Barth finds his answers to these questions in Romans 10:14 (how shall they hear without a preacher …ἀρα ἡ πιστις ἐξ ἀκοης, ἡ δε ἀκοη δια ῥματος χριστου]

p64 Barth now moves to deal with Roman Catholic dogmatics which he argues is concerned with the mutual relations of the concepts of preaching and sacrament….its dogmatics cannot emphasise strongly enough that the Church lives and dies by and in this means of grace. Barth cites various Roman Catholic scholars e.g. H Hurter, Scheeben-Atzberger and Bartmann. e.g. “The Church’s work in performing [the sacraments] is the truest revelation and the outer confirmation of its mysterious life.” [Hurter]

p65 “[The sacraments] are the most concentrated expression and the inmost kernel of the Church’s faith and life” [Scheeben-Atzberger]

Barth comments: …in this dogmatics preaching is not only assigned less importance, but virtually no importance at all compared to the sacrament which is received and celebrated so zealously.  

p65  Barth also opposes those Lutherans e.g. Klaus Harms (1817) who advance the exaggerated view that the Roman Church inclines to cling to the sacrament and build its life around this, that the Reformed Church does the same with the Word, but that the Lutheran Church “more splendidly than either” honours both sacrament and Word..

 Barth disagrees with this and argues that the Reformed and even the Modernist traditions pay much more care and attention to the sacraments than the Roman church does to preaching. [The Roman Church] consistently speak of the teaching office of the Church as though preaching did not even exist as an indispensable means of grace that claims serious attention.

p66  Barth does admit practical Roman writings say positive things about preaching and quotes Franz Hettinger (1909) “through this word of preaching and in it Christ lives on mystically, edifies, extends, enlightens, comforts and blesses HIs Church continually, pursues His work of redemption through every century,, feeds our souls on the bread of truth, just as He incorporates the whole man into Himself through the eucharistic bread”.  But Barth  complains that such thought are not represented in the manuals of Roman Catholic dogmatics.  

p66 Barth argues that the fact …that the Roman Catholic Church has produced more than one outstanding preacher  both past and present, cannot alter …the way in which this function is obviously forced into a backwater even in its exercise, as shown externally by the ruling that the Mass may be complete without it.

p67 …Roman Catholicism—not unlike Modernism in this respect—sees something quite different from proclamation take place as that centre of the Church’s life which we have described as proclamation.

 [It is possible that Barth over-rates the role of proclamation in worship. Effective, powerful, interesting  preaching is a rare gift in my experience and it should be cherished when it occurs but even the finest preaching will be lost if the surrounding worship..prayer/sacrament/hymn singing etc is performed poorly. I think it is not that proclamation has priority over sacrament, singing and public prayer but that public worship should be seen in totality as service to God and therefore carefully prepared, sensitively performed and prayerfully surrounded. The problem with over-estimating proclamation is that it becomes Protestant scholasticism.]

p68  [The Reformers}…thought they could understand the presence of the holy God among unholy men only as the grace of the strictly personal free Word of God which reaches its goal in the equally free hearing of men, the hearing of faith, which for its part, too, can be understood only as grace….[The Roman Catholic understanding] …sees the presence of Jesus Christ in his Church, the mystical unity of the Head with the whole body, in the face that under certain conditions there flows from Jesus Christ a steady and unbroken stream or influence of divine-human being on His people. Barth regards this a “theocentric” theology as opposed to the “anthropocentric” theology of Modernism but both agree in the unwillingness to recognise the ultimate necessity of proclamation. 

[It is almost as if what Barth fears is missing form Modernism and Roman Catholicism is mission…the spoken word which seeks to proclaim and convert..and yet surely church is for insiders not for outsiders. Apart from specific “seeker services” surely when Christians gather to worship they are seeking encouraging fellowship, joint exhilarating worship with fellow believers, the sense of drawing near to the very presence of God in sacrament, exhortation to dig more deeply into their faith and understanding certainly but not the constant proclamation e.g. that they are sinner’s in need of salvation or the repetition of God’s proclamation to the world through his Word…that is surely the task of mission not worship ]

p69  On this  [Roman Catholic] view the sacrament has to become the one and all …and naturally preaching has to be forced into that particular backwater. [The Roman Catholic Church}..regards the faith which comes from hearing the Word only as preparatory to receiving righteousness from God….It cannot be a means of true sanctifying grace…only a means of preparatory grace….For it, then, preaching can have a place only on the extreme margin of the Church’s action.

p70  [The Reformers]…regarded the representative event at the centre of the Church’s life as proclamation, as an act concerned with speaking and hearing… a personal encounter…..hence not the sacrament alone nor preaching alone, nor yet, to speak meticulously, preaching and the sacrament in double track, but preaching with the sacrament, with the visible act that confirms human speech as God’s act…The Evangelical Churches, Lutheran as well as Reformed, can and must be termed the churches of preaching.

  [and yet in Europe in the C20th and C21st many of these Lutheran and Reformed churches are relatively empty and some have become museums while the Catholic churches with their creaky machinery continue to rumble along with large numbers and e.g. in Spain it is the more “superstitious” centres with Mariology at the heart of things that attract more numbers than the more traditional catholic churches. Similarly in the West, Orthodoxy and its mystic Christ experience is growing at the expense of both Catholicism and Protestantism…while the megachurches seem to collapse when their proclaiming guru (e.g. Driscoll, Bell, Piper, Peters, crystal cathedral etc decides to withdraw and follow other paths..twas ever this I guess with e.g. Wesley, Whitefied, Spurgeon, Moody, Stott, Graham…the proclaimers cannot go on for ever and new proclaimers must arise but at the moment (2017) it seems that proclaimed words about Christ are less required than quiet meditation and thinking with Christ…hence the popularity of Benedictine order and thinking…maybe it has something to do with the noise and the tiresomeness of online chatter…]

p70-71  Barth cites many authorities in favour of proclamation above all else as important in the church [ e.g. the Augustininian Confession, Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon,  and writes against C19th Lutheran scholars (Harms, Vilmar, Löhe) who discredited preaching. He closes with a quote from Johannes Rupprecht (1925):…The Word is the primary thing. The Word existed before the sacrament was…The Word is God’s original essence, the sacrament is first aroused by our need. The Word will remain after our need, the sacrament will disappear after our need.  This presupposed, I must say that Word is the audible sacrament and the sacrament is the visible Word. The Word was before the sacrament and exists without the sacrament and will also still exist afterwards.

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