Interaction With a Roman Catholic on Sola Scriptura


As a Reformed Christian, the subject of Sola Scriptura or Bible alone is a very important part of my approach to Christianity. But it is not so much "my" approach I want to understand, as I'm not very keen on developing a radical individualized theology. I am pursuing a course that will bring my faith more in line with the "faith once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3). Unfortunately, I have had Roman Catholics (RC) and Anabaptistic Christians alike tell me that if I want that kind of faith, I'll have to become a Roman Catholic. I disagree.

The topic of Sola Scriptura is prescient because so many times, we non-Roman Catholics seem to use that phrase but instead behave like it is "Sola private interpretation" and to heck with the faith passed down via the apostles (2 Thes 2:15) -- as if the Church was so corrupted within a few centuries, that it was not revived again until the Reformation. This is wrong thinking in that it ultimately undermines the continuity of Christianity and saws off the very branch we claim to sit on.

In this regard, I have had some interactions with Joe Heschmeyer, a Roman Catholic Christian and law student at Georgetown University Law Center.

Mr. Heschmeyer was kind enough to write a detailed interaction with a comment I left on his website concerning the definitions of tradition and Sola Scripture. [See my original comment here, see Mr. Heschmeyer's detailed reply here].

First, let me say I really appreciate Mr. Heschmeyer taking the time to interact with my comments. Now, I'd like to return the dialogue by interacting with his comments. I shall quote his comments in segments and reply immediately under each. Again, to read Mr. Heescheyer's posting without my comments, do so at his website at this link.


"Sola Scriptura means different things to different people. A modern Calvinist or Lutheran may intend the term in its historic sense, but it's taken on a whole separate meaning amongst those (particularly non-denominationalists and Evangelicals) who take the implications of the doctrine to what they understand to be its logical conclusions."

Agreed, and unfortunately as I stated earlier, it seems many apply the concept of Sola Scriptura more as Sola Private Interpretation. They pick up the Bible and simply claim it means what they think it means, regardless of any knowledge of the original languages, or historic interpretations, let alone context or exegetical comparison with other texts within Scripture.

"Roderick has captured it by the terms pro-traditionalists and anti-traditionalists; Keith Mathison and others sometimes the possibly derogatory term solo Scriptura to refer to the later category; others (like Heiko Oberman) distinguish between the Reformer's original methodology as "Tradition 1" and the modern Evangelicals' as "Tradition 0." So lots of proposed ways to clear up the confusion, but none have particularly caught on, and sola Scriptura remains the preferred self-descriptor for most. I'll follow Oberman for this post, but I'm always interested in hearing from actual believers in these two views as to what they feel the most helpful (descriptive and respectful) way to distinguish the two are."

Unfortunately, the topic of Sola Scriptura has taken on a frenzy that is difficult to reel in long enough to get people to sit and talk about the historic reality. There is a romanticism that sees Martin Luther and other Reformers as rebellious men who were out to overthrow everything that was ever the Church, and this is how many people now apply Sola Sciptura. Mathison has done a fine job at bringing the issue to the table in a reasoned and responsible way in his book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura which I am reviewing here. Therefore, since many of us Christians; Protestant and Roman Catholics alike have a limited or distorted view of what was actually meant by the Reformers of the phrase Sola Scriptura, any discussion would need to first start with understanding the original meaning, not the meaning it has taken on in modern Evangelicalism.

"With Tradition 0, sola Scriptura means something near: "if I were on a desert island and read a Bible, what would I understand that Bible to be saying about God (or whatever the relevant issue is)." The Bible contains all of the necessary tools for living a godly life, "able to make thee wise unto salvation" and so that "the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Timothy 3:14-17). Given this, there's no need (or room) for the Church, or for Tradition. We've got the saving medicine from the Doctor of Life (God), so there's no reason to hear a second opinion from, say, the Church Fathers."

Well, that might be at the far end of the Tradition 0/solo Scriptura spectrum. Some will hear from the Church or from Church Fathers but most of the time only so they can disparage or show hostility toward those entities. It is odd that the Tradition 0/solo Scriptura advocates don't see how this approach denies God's ability and purpose of continuity for His community of saints. This approach throws the Church into immediate apostasy even though Jesus Himself said that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the Church. (Matthew 16:18) But for the most part, Mr. Heschmeyer's depiction of Tradition 0/solo Scruptura is accurate.

"In stark contrast, Tradition 1 views sola Scriptura in this way: Scripture contains all of the information and tools which we need to be saved, but there's still a need for Tradition or the Church (the understanding of "Church" here is usually body of believers, or the early Church). Scripture contains all of the ingredients, but Tradition (and particularly, the Creeds) comprise a sort of recipe showing how those ingredients ought to be assembled."

First, it should be pointed out that Mathison and Oberman define this Tradition 1 as the belief the Church had pre-Papalism. They claim that the Tradition 1 approach is what the Catholic Church originally advocated before the rise of the concept that the Roman Bishop was more than just one regional bishop, equally among all other regional bishops. Also, it is contended that it is this Tradition 1 concept that the Reformers were advocating. However, Mr. Heschmeyer's definition needs a bit more fine tuning if I may.

The starting point with Tradition 1 is the Sovereignty of God. It is understood that God guides the Church and that at least in the basic doctrines of the Church, there has always been agreement since Jesus hand-picked the apostles and sent to them the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth (inspiration) and to pass on the traditions to the saints. (2 Thes 2:15) However, Tradition 1 does not deny that errors can and do slip into the Church (not into Scripture). So, while it is important to advocate Sola Scriptura, it does not negate that Christians also acknowledge that God has guided and continues to guide the Church as a whole in right interpretation and doctrine, at least in the basics. Otherwise we are left with each new generation ignoring the combined beliefs of historic Christianity and wanting instead to redefine the faith with each generation. No doctrine would ever be settled but always left open. Unfortunately, with our postmodernistic/Emergent church culture, some people are perfectly fine with this "unfinished Christianity" mentality. The Reformers clearly saw the basic doctrines of the Church settled by the time the last apostles completed their teaching. There is no idea that major doctrines were "organically developed" over time post-apostolic. The idea for example that the doctrine of the Trinity wasn't formulated until after the Arian heresy is rejected by a true advocate of Tradition 1/Sola Scriptura. The Trinity concept always existed in the Church even if not well articulated. The same is true of the idea of justification by faith alone. There is a continuity that is acknowledged. Luther called it "the ancient faith". (ref)

"Tradition 1 is a pretty attractive theory, and there's a lot about it which I appreciate. But there's a few fundamental problems with the theory:

1. First, it assumes the Protestant Bible as a starting place. None of the Early Church Fathers (not a single one) used the 66 book Protestant canon. So the early Church's recipe has different ingredients."

Actually, no. Tradition 1 doesn't assume the Protestant Bible as a starting place. In fact, Luther was set to reject James, Hebrews, Revelation and other books, yet he was an advocate of Tradition 1. Rather, a person who uses the phrase "Sola Scriptura" has a primary obligation to then define Scripture -- what is the Bible and why? If it is only 66 books, why not more or less? However, the idea that the Bible, the Canon wasn't concluded until the Council of Trent or perhaps with Constantine in the 4th century is also an error. We can reassemble the N.T. as we consider it to be today (both RC and Protestant), simply from the quoted texts of the early Church Fathers. The difference between the RC and the Protestant Bible is mainly found in the O.T., as the N.T. books are exactly the same titles. Of the O.T. differences, the RC Bible contains 7 other books:

  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • 1 Maccabees
  • 2 Maccabees
  • Wisdom
  • Sirach
  • Baruch

Let us spend a little time explaining why these books were rejected in the Protestant Bible, or perhaps it is better to say many of the earlier editions of Protestant Bibles, including the KJV did contain these books, but in a section called the apocrypha. I personally wish modern Protestant Bibles still contained these books at least as reference material.

TOBIT - The main reason this book is not considered part of the Protestant Bible is because it not in the Tanahk or Hebrew Bible as canonical. Meaning, the Jews didn't consider it O.T. Scripture, so nor should we. It did however appear in the Greek O.T. called the Septuagint. There appears to be no direct quote/references to Tobit in any N.T. passage. Nor do we find many Christians citing this book in the early Church Fathers.

JUDITH - Again, Judith is not included in the Jewish O.T. Canon except in the Greek version of the O.T. and therefore Protestants rejected it as not canonical.

1 and 2 MACCABEES -- While a good source of intra-testament history, these books also were not considered Scripture by the Jews, so again rejected by Protestants in their attempt to only consider O.T. Scripture from what the Jews themselves considered O.T. Scripture.

WISDOM - Again, this book is not part of the Rabbinical O.T. canon, and in fact was considered to be originally written in Greek which makes it even more unlikely to be a sacred book of the Jews. It is admitted, by even RC that the purported Solomon authorship is a bogus claim, making it even less likely to be considered canonical.

SIRACH - Yet again another book not found in the Jewish O.T. which again caused the Protestants to reject it as O.T. Scripture.

BARUCH - Yet again another book not found in the Jewish O.T. which again caused the Protestants to reject it as O.T. Scripture.

These 7 books are called "deuterocanonical" or second canon even by the RC. So, even the RC set these 7 books apart. This is an acknowledgment that as shown above, none of these 7 books were considered canonical by the Jews. However, as I said, I think it would be useful for Protestant Christians to have these books in our Bibles as they were previously, simply for the historical factor; especially since some segments of historic Christianity had utilized these texts. So, clearly the early Church didn't have a different ingredient for what the Bible is. For more on how the N.T. canon was considered, see this link.

Lastly, I strongly agree with Mr. Heschmeyer that in any discussion, be it between RC and Protestants, or Anabaptists, or even heretics; the question of what is the Bible and why should be the very first question settled. For when this topic is addressed, it takes away from the heretic any ability to deny that God has been guiding the Church, including what the Church, as a whole has considered to be THE BIBLE, which in turn places Sola Scriptura on a sound footing.

"Beyond this, the ECFs allowed for Apostolic Tradition whether by letter or word of mouth, so even if something wasn't explicitly in Scripture, it was still a binding part of the Faith if it was taught by the Apostles. This is an area which is often misunderstood, so let me be clear. The relationship between Scripture and Tradition to the early Church (and to the Catholic Church today) is like the relationship between the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Mark. They tell the exact same story, but that doesn't mean that you won't find details in one and not the other. In fact, you may even find times when they appear to contradict each other. But any Christian who believes both are completely inspired texts will try and understand them in a way that they don't contradict one another (since they can't both be right and contradictory). Likewise, we understand Tradition in a manner in which it doesn't violate Scripture, and vice versa."

The first sentence is contradictory or at least not verifiable. If we have something that is claimed to be taught by the apostles, why not stick with the long accepted N.T. canon (see link) rather than some 2nd, 3rd or further source that claims an apostle taught this or that. At which point do we stop considering secondary sources? I understand Mr. Heschmeyer's comparison of Tradition to the differences between Luke and Mark, but the problem is, not even the early Church Fathers would say Tradition was on par with Luke or Mark as far as being canonical and certainly not inspired, especially if inspiration is relegated to the apostles themselves as it should be. I think that is a bad analogy.

"Finally, the Early Church Fathers are incredibly Catholic. This results in a series of absurdities, like when Keith Mathison (a Tradition 1 Protestant) cites to St. Irenaus (c. 130-200 A.D.), even calling him "Bishop of Lyons," to try and prove that Irenaus believed in sola Scriptura. He didn't, but even if Mathison were right, to get to this point, he had to concede that there is an office of "Bishop of Lyons" in the 2nd century Church... an office which Mathison, as a Reformed Protestant, rejects."

No one denies the ECF were Catholic, even I am Catholic, in the sense I am part of the Universal or worldwide Church. However, not all of the ECF were Papists. In fact, MOST of the ECF were not Papists. It is extremely important to make this distinction. This should be a detailed article in itself.

By saying Irenaeus didn't advocate sola Scriptura is to deny the definition just given, which was Tradition 1 = Sola Scriptura, which DOES acknowledge tradition as far as the sovereign God has guided the Catholic/Universal Church to hold the same basic beliefs; whether we are looking at the pre-Roman Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church, Eastern/Greek Orthodox Church, Syrian Church, Coptic Church, Reformed/Protestant Church, Anabaptist Church, or the Modern Evangelical Church, there are minimal doctrines we all hold in common. These doctrines are sometimes plainly spelled out in Scripture or have always been held as the interpretation of Scripture and part of the "ancient faith". This is Tradition 1, Sola Scriptura as the Reformers understood and espoused it before the Anabaptisic individualistic radicals turned it into solo scriptura. Irenaeus and the other ECF certainly believed in Tradition 1/Sola Scriptura.

Lastly, I think Mr. Heschmeyer must misunderstand what Reformed Protestants think of when they think of Bishop. Since a Reformed Protestant considers bishops, pastors, and elders as synonymous then of course Reformed Protestants do not reject the role of Bishop. However, if Mr. Heschmeyer wants us to only think of Bishop as some regional role different than pastor or elder, then yes unfortunately most Reformed Protestants have rejected this role. But the question that must be asked is, did Jesus and the apostles set up the role of Bishop and was it an unchanging regional role? That is, we know the "office" of function of Deacon for example was summarily created to fill a need in the Church. (Acts 6) Can new roles be added to aid the Church? Does the role of Bishop always need to be one of regional or city-wide capacity? Is it possible that a bishop/pastor/elder can be utilized more effectively in our present society on a smaller, local scale?

My point is, the Reformed Protestant doesn't reject the role of the Bishop, only that he sees that role as more specified over a local congregation. However, I myself think we have lost something by narrowing the role of Bishop/Pastor. The Church has lost an effective ability to fight heresies. Regional Bishops tended to be free from the mundane daily oversight of a local congregation, thus allowing them to engage in more weighty theological pursuits. With the lack of Bishopric functions, many heresies go unchecked. But this is true even with the RC Bishopric. Ever since the advent of Papalism, where the regional Bishop of Rome exalted himself over say the Bishop of Jerusalem or Antioch, the Bishop even within the RC has lost his standing. For more on this see here and here.

"There are three ways of reconciling the conflict inherent in #3: either (a) becoming more Catholic (frequently, Catholic converts point to exactly this testimony of the Early Church), (b) rejecting the Church Fathers on an increasing number of issues, or (c) misunderstanding what they believed and taught. Of course, (a) leads to Catholicism, (b) leads to Tradition 0, and (c) is an unstable foundation."

Actually I would argue that (a) leads to Catholicism (not Roman Catholicism), since in fact many of the early Protestant pastors were considered like bishops of specific cities, such as Luther and Wittenberg, Huldrych Zwingli and Zurich, and John Calvin and Geneva. Yes, as time went on, and the structure of societies became more micronized, the role of Bishop, at least within Protestantism has narrowed to local congregations. And yes, there is a drawback to this as well as a benefit. The drawback, as mentioned is the loss of effective regional ability to fight heresy. Even with structures like Presbyterianism with its Synods and General Assemblies, the effectiveness is only denominational. The benefit is that the individual laymen has the focus of the pastor. The local congregation, though often failing today to do so has the ability to really help the individual laymen become equipped with the Gospel. I for one am not against the Protestants utilizing a more Bishopric structure as the original Reformers did. This is not uniquely Catholic, and especially not uniquely Roman Catholic since even the Eastern/Greek Church still utilized the Bishopric roles.

Lastly, I agree with Mr. Heschmeyer 100% on his conclusion as to where courses (b) and (c) have led and continue to lead.

"I would argue that even Roderick's own allocation of power to himself: of being the authority in charge of determining "where that ancient faith begins and ends," and deciding which of the Church's Traditions She can keep as authentic Tradition, is an authority never given to the layman anywhere in Scripture. You don't judge the Church: She judges you. The idea is as clear from Scripture as it is repugnant to a self-obsessed democratic people.

Perhaps I was unclear somewhere. I most certainly do not allocate to myself the power or authority of determining where the ancient faith begins and ends. As a believer in God's Sovereign guiding of the Church in general, it has to be my premise that the ancient faith will be more obvious the more and more we set aside our own biases and attempts of allocating personal power and authority. However, we must also be careful that we do not allow other men to allocate to themselves power and authority not given to them; namely the pope, a mere bishop among bishops.

As for judging the Church, I think of 1 Corinthians 5:12 specifically where we see the congregation, mere laymen being told to judge among the Church. Of course this is a specific case. I certainly don't want to become my own personal pope, but rather I seek to know where the Sovereign God, our Lord Jesus Christ placed the markers of the ancient faith. If this is not obvious the more we set aside our bias, set aside our misinformed history, set aside even some of our denominational specifics, then no wonder there is so much chaos. Let it be clear, I am not advocating syncreticism or ecumenicalism. I am holding fast that the ancient faith is simple and has only been slightly obfuscated by man-made traditions. As a Calvinistic Christian, I clearly understand the Church is not a Democracy.

"That said, I'm not sure I understand what "Papalism" is, or who actually believes it. My hunch is that this is the sort of thing that people accuse their opponents of believing, while no one believes it themselves -- a straw man, in other words. If that it is the case, I agree that "there is a clear difference between Roman Catholicism and Papalism. And it seems the Reformers were more against Papalism than the RCC.

Simply put, Papalism (which is what the Reformers were actually rebelling against, not against the Church) Papalism is the notion that the Bishop in Rome somehow has any more authority than any other Bishop or Pastor. The Bishop in Rome is not the heir to Peter, especially as we cross reference the typical RC proof-text of Mt 16:18-19 with Mt 18:18-19. This so-called "keys to bind and loose" appear to be given to Peter alone in Mt 16:18-19 from which the Papists have built a notion of apostolic succession as if each Roman pope has the "keys" to bind and loose not only supposedly ex cathedra/infallible positions on doctrines within the Church but as was a contention with the Reformers, it is supposed the pope has/had the ability to bind and loose souls. It is clear from Mt 18:18-19 that these "keys" were given to all the apostles and only meant that they were the authority within the Church. There is no warrant for apostolic succession. The apostles were hand-picked by Jesus as the foundation of the Church, He Himself being the Cornerstone(Eph 2:20). A foundation is NOT laid with each new generation. There is a reason Paul was setting up elders in the various churches. Elders and Apostles were not the same function and role. The role of apostle has ceased as even Paul acknowledges he was the last picked apostle. (1 Corinthians 15:6-8,1 Corinthians 4:9) The idea that the Roman Bishop is somehow the heir to Peter is the main wall of separation that hinders reunification between not only the RC and the Protestants, but also between the RC and the Eastern/Greek Orthodox.

The man of straw in this case is the one sitting on a throne in Rome when Jesus never called anyone to take up this role of Romanized High-Priest. I do not mean this to be hostile toward Mr. Heschmeyer, for the RC wasn't always Papal. I leave that up to him and his fellow RCs to work out, but just know that there can never be reunion with the rest of Christianity until the pastor/bishop in Rome is set into his proper place among the other pastors/bishops in the Church.

"Here's what we Catholic actually believe:

Tradition (paradosis), strictly speaking, is anything "passed on." Anything you teach your kids is a tradition, in some sense, whether it's "Love the Lord your God" or "remember to excuse yourself before leaving the table." The difference between "Tradition" and "traditions of men" is that Tradition is those things passed on from God. It's called Apostolic Tradition because of 2 Thes 2:15 and 1 Cor. 11:2, but St. Paul makes it clear that the ultimate origin of this Tradition is Jesus Christ Himself. Paul notes this expressly in regards to the Eucharist in 1 Cor. 11:23-26 and in regards to the Death and Resurrection of Christ in 1 Cor. 15:3-5.

The above definition contains two definitions; (1) Anything passed on and (2) Things "passed on" by the apostles (ultimately by Christ Himself).

If is (1) with which we Protestants have a grievance with RCs. Where did Jesus or any apostle "pass on" that there is to be an heir to Peter? Where did Jesus or any apostle "pass on" that Mary is any kind of intercessor, let alone any be-sainted person since in essence ALL Christians are called "saints".

If the RC would have restricted its course to the (2) definition, then much turmoil could have been avoided. Again, I mean no hostility toward Mr. Heschmeyer, I'm simply trying to show the bone of contention here, not only in terms of defining tradition and Sola Scriptura, but defining why the Protestants and the Eastern/Greek Orthodox reject Papalism.

"Catholics reject the notion of a secret Tradition. The Gnostics claimed that Jesus taught one thing publicly and a totally different thing to His Disciples. We've always rejected this as bogus. It's true that Jesus was more expicit and more in-depth with the Twelve, but it was the same message, public and private."

I thank Mr. Heschmeyer for stating this, however I for one never accuse the RC of advocating any secret traditions, only that the RC seem to accept secondary and tertiary traditions as if they are no different than differences between the books of Luke and Mark. This is wrong.

"Scripture summarizes the teachings of Christ, and the Apostolic Faith. This is true both of the New Testament as a whole, and of each individual book."

No disagreement here. Amen.

"That said, important details are sometimes omitted. This isn't, as some claim, because the Apostles didn't know or believe in these things, or because they forgot. The Holy Spirit simply guided them to include certain details in each particular account. So, for example, only two of the four Gospels mention the Virgin Birth (a fundamental tenet of Christianity), while all four would have obviously known about it. Same goes for the Beatitudes. Very important part of the Faith, yet it's only in two accounts."

Again, no disagreement, unless and until RCs begin to say extra-biblical traditions are as inspired as Scripture.

"Usually, the differences in details are due to their particular focus: Matthew and Luke focus on the miracle of the Virgin Birth, while John (in his famous first chapter) takes a theological view on the perhaps more incredible miracle that God became Man at all, and that the Man Jesus Christ is the eternal God from before the dawn of time. Neither rejects the others' starting point, they just chose to focus on different aspects. Similarly, John chooses to mention only seven of Jesus' miracles, in order to focus on them more closely. John admits in John 21:25, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."

Again, no disagreement until and unless the RCs begin to suppose to fill in the "books not written" with questionable books or with ex cathedra proclamations. Let us instead, devote ourselves to the books that were written about the things Jesus has done and said, lest we become like the Mormons who advocate they have another book.

"For each book of the Bible, we can say without contradiction, "the Book is perfect," written exactly as the Holy Spirit intended, and "the Book is incomplete on its own." Catholics say the same thing of the entire written Bible, and rely heavily upon Biblical support for this proposition. Protestants who claim that the Bible is complete on its own have to argue this (ironically) with recourse to non-Biblical propositions. To use another analogy: some early heretics tried to argue that the Old Testament was evil while the New Testament was good. Yet Christ quotes the Old Testament favorably in the New Testament. So if the New is true, the Old is true as well - there's no way to sever the New from the Old without mangling its meaning. Likewise, non-written Apostolic Tradition and the authority of the Church are both written of in the Bible, so if you take the Bible for what it says, you have to rely upon more than just the Bible."

Allow me to interact with the above in small segments since there is a lot therein. First, it is the Protestant position that the Bible is as the Holy Spirit intended, this is the reason for example Protestants reject the deuterocanonical books, since there is strong evidence that the Holy Spirit didn't guide God's original guardians of Scripture, the Jews to consider those books to be canonical. It is then, the Protestant that is holding this Holy Spirit guidance concept more soundly.

If there are Protestants that hold that the Bible is complete on its own, they are typically the Tradition 0 Christians we have defined together, the ones that are more Solo Scriptura.

I would agree that Tradition 0 Christians are much like heretics who have arbitrarily decided which books are canonical or not, but to apply this analogy to Tradition 1, Sola Scriptura Christians would be very incorrect.

Now we come to the last contention which is puzzling.

"Likewise, non-written Apostolic Tradition and the authority of the Church are both written of in the Bible, so if you take the Bible for what it says, you have to rely upon more than just the Bible."

It is puzzling because Mr. Heschmeyer earlier told us that the RCC does not hold to "secret traditions", however what do we call a non-written tradition that can't be verified. If tomorrow the pope claims to recite some non-written tradition to which he demands adherence, what is the recourse? That is not how Jesus operates. That is why He hand-picked apostles and taught them for 3+ years and then sent them the Holy Spirit.

Only the Tradition 0 radicals reject the authority of the Church.

Lastly, the circular statement of "take the Bible for what it says" compared to "rely upon more than just the Bible" only makes sense if we restrict our conclusion that God is Sovereign and has guided the community of saints in the basic, correct acceptance of what is to be considered Scripture, and guiding us in the basic and correct doctrines of the ancient faith.


Much thanks and appreciation to Mr. Heschmeyer for his time put into this interaction. It has been beneficial for me personally and I hope for the reader. [Typos, if there are any will be corrected as found]

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