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Do Non-Lutherans Pay Attention to LCMS Theology?

Submitted by on April 12, 2016 – 3:39 pm30 Comments

I will offer two theses. Admittedly, they are biased. I offer them for discussion, since ConcordiaTheology.org is intended to be a place for discussion—honest, frank, but also fair and respectful, not ad-hominem, and not concerning the politics of Concordia Seminary’s particular church body, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS). Both theses contribute to the effort of assessing the state of things in 2016.

My first thesis is this: “Current theological work in the LCMS is the best kept secret in American Christianity.” There is excellent theological work currently being done within the LCMS. Notable examples include:

  • exegetical work in the Concordia Commentary series;
  • work on the first article and creation theology;
  • work on rediscovering the early church fathers;
  • work on the history of the church in the Middle Ages;
  • work on Reformation history and theology;
  • work on understanding the entire Christian narrative in a holistic way;
  • work in the area of virtue ethics;
  • work in the areas of homiletics and pastoral practice.

Excellent theological work is being done, but I don’t see non-Lutherans interacting with it very much. Admittedly, that is a rather broad generalization. There are noteworthy exceptions here and there, but in general, theological work within the LCMS is not receiving much attention from non-Lutheran circles. It is as if we are dwarves with a secret pot of gold.

If that thesis is true, it raises the obvious question of why. My second thesis addresses the why: “Non-Lutherans simply don’t know the theological work currently done in the LCMS.” I don’t expect mainline liberal Protestants to be any more interested in us than we are about some of the topics they talk about. But why don’t more conservative Christians, such as more traditional Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, conservative Presbyterians and Anglicans, know the theological work currently done in the LCMS? Here are some possible reasons.

  • Is it because we don’t interact in non-Lutheran circles enough? What I see in our circles is Lutherans talking and debating with Lutherans. It resembles a basketball team that only scrimmages with itself. That is necessary, but eventually you have to play another team.
  • Is it because we don’t address the questions non-Lutherans are asking? We are so swamped with our daily work that we don’t have time to read and consider outsider questions. But that consideration is crucial to a broader understanding of church and world.
  • Is it because we don’t respect the theological work being done by non-Lutherans? There is some excellent and very helpful work being done by conservative non-Lutheran theologians.
  • Is it because we don’t speak, write and communicate in outsider language? When a piece is pitched as “a distinctively confessional Lutheran approach,” that pitch is only for insiders. A Mennonite is not interested in reading a “distinctively confessional Lutheran approach” any more than I want to read a “distinctively Mennonite approach.” The language we use comes across as addressed only to Lutherans.
  • Is it because we don’t aggressively market our “brand” in non-Lutheran circles? We should think about marketing. Luther used the technology of his day, the printing press.

If you disagree, I welcome your thoughts. I don’t claim infallibility. The status quo cannot be changed overnight, and no one person is responsible for change. Yet we do need to assess the way things are in 2016. What do you think?

30 Comments »

  • Brian Yamabe says:

    I’ve seen the criticism that we are too insular in multiple places recently. While I wouldn’t disagree we need to engage more outside our circle too often we end up compromising or attaching ourselves inappropriately (Christ Hold Fast and the 1517 Legacy Project come to mind). I prefer the tact of Issues, Etc., the God Whispers, and Tabletalk Radio. They put forth who we are in an appealing way that invites outsiders to engage. They also sneak in some of the fine theological work that is being done in our circles.

    • Ken Narvesen says:

      I certainly agree and lament that the wider church often does not seriously interact with Lutheran thinking. It seems to me though that this post is evidence that the wall is built from both sides of the divide. As soon as someone tries to tear down that wall, both the Lutheran and non Lutheran involved are seen by some who consider themselves to be true Lutherans as doctrinally tainted. And the wall keeps getting more difficult to tear down.

  • Jason Skudlarek says:

    As an LCMS layman who treasures Lutheran theology and has grown to steadily dislike (ok, I admit it, it’s probably closer to abhor!) non-Lutheran doctrines because of the damage they cause, I have mixed feelings about this issue. Yet I certainly welcome any and all to explore the excellent theology and doctrines of our church body!

    Nevertheless, on a personal level, having interacted with Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, non-denoms, Catholics, Presbyterians, etc., I know they largely don’t understand our doctrines or, based mostly on false assumptions (e.g. baptism is a work, you guys don’t believe in a millenium, etc.) and information (e.g. we believe as the ELCA does; all Lutherans are the same), more commonly dislike or are openly hostile to our doctrines. Baptismal regeneration, the real presence, and confession/absolution (i.e. anything sacramental) are the big stumbling blocks between Lutherans and any other church body.

    And this leaves me with two options:
    1. take my sacraments and doctrines and seek out true Lutheran teaching, while (mostly) ignoring these other groups, or
    2. attempt to enlighten these groups on our doctrines and why we believe what we believe.

    Option 1 is much easier. Option 2 requires that these other groups listen AND that I know my own doctrines (and scripture) well enough to articulate them properly, especially when challenged. Over the years my ability to do this has steadily increased, but I’ve also grown tired of trying to defend Lutheranism to itching ears. It is quite difficult to sit in on a non-denom Bible study and try to point out Lutheran distinctives…it becomes a 1 vs. many debate, and even if your point is strongly supported by scripture, it’s mostly a losing battle.

    We have true treasure in the LCMS. We have Luther, Walther, Pieper, arguably the 3 greatest theologians of ‘modern’ times. And the material you cite coming out of Lutheran sources nowadays is also excellent. But the world doesn’t want it. It’s a shame. The uniqueness of Lutheranism and its true subscription to the solas is something the world needs.

    Finally, as regards scrimmaging amongst ourselves only: if you are confident your doctrines are correct, that your church has the strongest confession, that your doctrines have been attacked and defended for about 500 years, etc., why would you want to talk with other groups? They should be coming to us, not the other way around (which I guess is part of what you’re getting at in this post)! We’ve been giving ground to the Calvinists for 500 years; it’s time we stood firm in our confession. As Capt. Picard would say, “The line must be drawn HERE!”

    haha. Sorry for the long post/rant.

    • Jason Skudlarek says:

      Alas, I am not on Facebook, so cannot reply directly to Steve Lehmann.

      Your post is interesting to me. In it, you say you left the LCMS because of a prevailing attitude (I assume you think the prevailing attitude is one of haughtiness given the rest of your post). And so you went to the PCA.

      It seems to me, therefore, that you must be entirely unconvinced that Lutheran doctrine and theology are correct. As such, disliking the prevailing attitude, you chose to go elsewhere. You were completely flexible on your doctrine and confession. But some of us are not willing to concede matters of doctrine and we stand firm in our confession, which we believe is scriptural truth. If this makes us seem haughty, so be it. But the only alternative (I can see) is to be flexible and thereby leave/muddy the confession, which I’m not willing to do.

      And so it is perfectly natural for me to admit I abhor other theology. Limited atonement? Unconditional election? Decision theology? Sacramentarianism? These and many other doctrines fly in the face of scripture to me, so how can I look at them with an open mind? Moreover, I’ve seen the trouble and despair these doctrines can cause other Christians.

      I never meant to convey, “you need to quiet down and listen to me so that I can enlighten you.” I simply said people of other confessions need to actually listen to and study the Lutheran doctrines based on scripture and not their theological presuppositions (granted, very difficult). But rather than do that, my experience has been that as soon as something like sacraments are mentioned, there is an immediate backlash and shutdown. So I’m saying there’s a choice to either listen to what we believe/teach/confess, or not. If it’s the latter, I’ll simply head my own way – I’m not forcing engagement upon anyone. I’m more than happy to share our doctrine, but this requires the other party to listen.

      I should point out here that it’s also interesting that you chose to visit this Lutheran site…this seems to imply you are willing to listen, which is great. That’s all I was saying.

      So what about me? Am I not willing to listen to others? Again, I have, and I do. I just increasingly get little out of it. I’ve studied other church’s doctrines and find them lacking. Nevertheless, I can and do go outside of Lutheranism to find sound teaching; I’m currently finishing James White’s “The God Who Justifies.” But it’s exhausting because I have to be discerning on every single page and cross out/correct what I perceive to be errors.

      I find it curious that you cite a “rich engagement that exists between other denominations.” You must realize that many non-denoms abhor Calvinism. I’ve seen Calvinists treated horribly. So I don’t share your optimistic view of the ecumenical spirit among other confessions. I’ve encountered a lot of hostility against Lutherans, based on our commonalities with Catholicism and even Luther’s late writings against the Jews, as if that were part of our doctrine!

      Finally, because the Lutheran church stands firm in its confession, it is always ready, able, and willing to bring the Gospel. People find us and to many, it is a breath of fresh air, hope, assurance, etc. But our flag is firmly planted atop this confessional hill, and we won’t budge from it because we believe it says the same thing as scripture.

      In closing, I say all this simply as a layman in the LCMS. I’m not an official spokesman. There are plenty of folks in the LCMS who are even more steadfast and firm than I am, and many, many who are less. But I take doctrine seriously, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

  • You’re right; magnificent work is being done in these areas. You’re also right that we need to break out of our shell and intersect with conservative biblical scholars in other confessions.

    Yet there is another extremely important factor, I believe. We have failed to do the intensive diagnostic/analytical work essential for evangelization, preaching, and catechesis today. The worldview has shifted dramatically and our culture is in cataclysmic collapse. Fundamental human identity is now called into question. This is the time for concerted effort to be made to join the conversation on foundational matters such as the connection between the body and sexual identity, the orders of creation and Christian vocation of male/female, husband/wife, father/mother. Lastly in the essential task of teaching and modeling virtue ethics, we need to deliberately interpose our rich theology of daily baptismal renewal and daily sanctification through living out our baptismal vocation in Christ.

  • Mark Brown says:

    A few items that I think play a big roll:
    1) Lutherans do not have any space for good popularizers, neither are they numerous enough to sell enough copies of serious works to “theology-nerds”.
    2) The second you start to talk sacraments you lose the protestant audience, and the catholic world doesn’t think you really have them anyway.
    3) The nasty side of branding is that there are “teams”. Lutherans are their own team, but see #1, we can’t/don’t actually work as a team.
    4) Marketwise, we don’t have many “platform” spots (i.e. megachurches) and many of the ones we do have are more on team American Evangelical than team Lutheran.

    A first step would be for the establishment of a webpresence like the Gospel Coalition. A place where people could get their feet wet and where entities like “real clear religion” could link to on a regular basis. That is where the interaction starts, at the more popular level.

  • Jean says:

    I don’t see Lutheran scholars represented at various theological conferences or participating in counterpoint books (with one or two exceptions). You’ve got to get out and interact if you want people to notice. Don’t expect others to seek you out. Do not for a second believe that Luther deserves any current street cred. unless you show that in light of scholarly development and new manuscripts Luther is still correct.

  • Rev. Jerry Kliner says:

    As an ELCA pastor, I can say that “YES”, some “non-LCMS Lutherans” do pay attention to LCMS theology. I think that this varies widely upon who you exactly are talking to/about; members of the “Society of the Holy Trinity” (STS), for example, are extremely likely to know and be familiar to LCMS theologians and publications while others in the ELCA are either passingly open to perhaps hostile to LCMS sources. I’ll outline three major reasons:

    1) Hostility–either true or perceived–between LCMS and other Lutherans. Close(d) Communion has resulted (not critiquing or debating Close(d) Communion, just describing it’s effects) in a history of antipathy between the LCMS and many other Lutherans. Add in the widening gulf between the LCMS and the ELCA in particular, with the pronouncement of the ELCA as heterodox, and many are hostile to the prospect of using LCMS sources because they perceive those sources to be automatically condemning them.

    2) Parallel traditions and theological sources. So, this is not a critique of either camp, but whereas the LCMS has “Walther” (as one example) others have their own parallel sources like “Krauth.” Likewise, in contemporary sources like Seminary faculties and Denominational officials are parallel in and amongst Lutherans. We tend to read and study those from our own bodies.

    3) Different culture, different relevant questions. The LCMS, with it’s “Quia” subscription, for example, asks different questions than the ELCA with it’s prominent “social Gospel” identity. If you’re looking for a theologian dealing with the Confessions, you’re more likely to turn to LCMS sources (I do, at least) because ELCA theologians just don’t deal with the classical theological or confessional questions. But if you’re in the ELCA and consumed with “Social Gospel Theology” you’re not going to find the LCMS theologians dealing with the questions your denomination is pressing on.

    Please do not hear this as a critique of the LCMS nor of LCMS theologians. It’s just an answer to the question that was asked.

    Pax Christi;
    Pr. Jerry Kliner, STS
    Saint Paul Lutheran Church, Morgantown, WV

  • Mark Lundgren says:

    Some possible answers (from an LCMS pastor):
    1. Ignorance. People don’t know the Bible, the Church, or pretty much anything about Christianity beyond the very, very vague basics. I pastor a church in a small town where there are only two churches. EVERYBODY knows me, they know my church, and they know that we make the best potato pancakes around. But when asked about our beliefs, they say, “You’re pretty much like the Catholics, right?” How can we expect people to know the intricacies of our theology when they don’t know the basics of Christian faith in general?
    2. We’re conservative. If you believe the Bible to be true in all its parts, you’re automatically on the “fringe” of the culture. Because of this we’re seen as strange, radical, or even dangerous. We’re not typically welcome at the discussion table among other Christian denominations and certainly not with those who aren’t Christian.
    3. We don’t have any “stars” out in the public eye. This is most likely due to #2 above, but other than Paul Maier on a very few occasions, there are no LCMS figures to be seen on Discovery, NatGeo, History Channel, or wherever else “Bible” documentary shows are broadcast. We don’t have a Bill Hybels or Max Lucado or other nationally known celebrity type that would give publicity to our denomination in any way.

    These are the reasons I think the general public knows little about the LCMS and our theology. But I also believe that these fit with other Christian denominations as well. For #2 above, you could replace “conservative” with “insular.” Though that may not just be from our side of the discussion–other denominations don’t really study those outside their own faith either.

    I was told by a Christian publishing executive a while back that the general Christian market really loved the Lutheran Study Bible, except that it was too Lutheran. Take out all the Book of Concord stuff and the constant quotes from Luther, and the rest was great. Perhaps the main reason know one knows about LCMS theology is that they don’t want to.

  • Ken Wise says:

    Wow! Thanks for writing what I’ve been thinking and feeling for 25 years. Your 5 bullet points, regarding your 2nd thesis, are “yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes!” Now – the real challenge – how do we change things? Thanks for the article. It made my day.

  • Christopher Galen says:

    Or maybe, echoing Mark Cooper’s comments, those of other faiths can’t get past this, since this kind of attitude doesn’t represent the basis for much of a wider conversation: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/february-web-only/lutheran-pastor-apologizes-for-praying-at-newtown-vigil.html

    • James Neuendorf says:

      Actually the article you link is not really so much about ecumenicalism as much as it is about interfaith worship. This is a crucial distinction.

      While a conservative Lutheran will not partake in the Lord’s Supper with another Christian who is openly confessing against the meaning of the Supper itself (as we understand and confess it according to scripture), we have no issue whatsoever with praying and meeting together with other Christian believers, (at least in the LCMS) even studying the word together and learning from each-other. I think most Lutherans engage with Evangelical writers and material on a regular basis, even a significant portion of the materials in our highest theological education, from our most conservative professors, often contain material which is not Lutheran in origin but is true and faithful to scripture.

      Perhaps it could be understood in this way:

      We are happy to talk about the same God with others who believe in that same God revealed in scripture as brothers and not as “potential converts” we even have much to learn from them.

      We are willing to work together with those brothers who believe in the same God in order to serve the community, but with caution as the cause for service may make it difficult to work together on a practical level. (Our Mercy Theology: We do because Christ did for us first, not to gain God’s favor.)

      We are uncomfortable worshipping together with those who believe in the same God but preach and confess in their worship services things which are not in agreement with Scripture. It is not prohibited for us to worship at a Presbyterian church though, or to attend a gathering of other Christians and sing hymns and read scripture together.

      We cannot admit to the Lord’s Supper in our congregations where we are administering this sacred gift, people who willfully deny the very gift that God is giving, whether they are Lutherans or not! (Note that we even will deny communion to our own members if they publicly confess against our common confession, as the church has always done). We also cannot participate in the Lord’s Supper where it is being offered as something other than what it is; God’s Body and Blood given and shed.

      Broadening the circle a bit:

      We love to talk about God with people who do not believe in the same God as us, we call this evangelism. These people are not our brothers in Christ however, and we cannot be taught by them regarding Him. We will never invite a Hindu to teach at our congregation about God, even though we may invite a Hindu to teach us about what he believes to be true so that we can better understand him and engage with him.

      We can technically work together with governments and secular social agencies to do good works of mercy in the community, but we do so very carefully, knowing that their ultimate motivation is not the same as ours at all.

      However we absolutely can never worship together with those who worship a different god than us, that is gross idolatry. About half of the Old Testament deals with this specific problem! God didn’t tolerate the kings of Israel being “multicultural” and having interfaith worship services, not at all. The issue in the link you sent regards this point, was this a worship service or not? The fact that the LCMS is taking flak from other Christians on this point is actually gravely concerning about the rest of Christendom. This should not be debatable among Christians. Notice that the pastor involved did not consider it to be a worship service, but later, upon reflection, repented of this idea. The question was whether it was considered worship or not; the implications were obvious once it was established.

      I am a Lutheran Missionary and while I will happily share the Gospel with anyone who will listen, I also have a paradigm which agrees with the above principles. If I meet a Baptist or a Reformed person while serving as a missionary, I am happy to talk with them about theology, and even learn from them and share in a common prayer and expression of faith. I will also share what I believe scripture teaches with them, and I certainly hope that they will consider those points. I will not try to convert them, or work to “reach them” even when I think certain things about their teachings obscure the Gospel. I have some pretty long winded complaints about their theologies, but I consider them to be believers in the same Christ. This even goes for active Roman Catholics who demonstrate that their faith is in Christ, I consider them to be a wayward brother on a bad part of the road, but a brother all the same.

      When I meet a lapsed Roman Catholic who worships at and trusts in a false altar, or a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness claiming to be Christian (but denying the God of scripture), I consider them to be people in need of a conversion, effected by the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Word. I cannot worship with them at their altar, I cannot call them brothers in faith, but I love them because Christ loves them! Certainly Muslims and those of other faiths fit obviously into this category.

  • Joe says:

    I thought of these 2 things:

    Luke 19:47-48
    “And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.

    Acts 2:37
    When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

    So why did people listen to Jesus and not the Pharisees? What compelled them to respond to Peter’s ‘sermon’? I grew up in (and still belong to) a congregation in the LCMS, but it wasn’t until I heard the gospel through the preaching of Alistair Begg, Chuck Swindoll, and Ravi Zacharias (praise God for radio stations!) until I was ‘cut to the heart’ and the Holy Spirit really started to re-orient my heart and transform my thinking…

    I really think people are tired of the (perceived or real?) legalism of the LCMS. I think this is a separate issue from theology. I think it may have to do with how our pastors are being taught, how our congregations are being preached to, how synod leadership leads… I don’t really know.

    Christ came to save us, to free us, and provide life and life to the fullest!!!!

    If individuals don’t hear, see and experience the life of Christ in the LCMS – they won’t be interested in diving into any ‘theological treasures’ we might have.

    Please note:
    God DOES work inspite of our brokenness. I’m thankful the current congregation I have is served by pastors who love and are lead by the Holy Spirit. The people of God in the LCMS are doing the work of God. I am hopeful that God WILL transform the LCMS and His Church in the world to engage the world in (John 1:17) “grace and truth”.

  • Aurelio Magariño says:

    Personally, we have created a culture of ecumenical isolation that keeps other members of the Body of Christ from interacting with us and the sound theological work produced in our circle.

  • Marcus Krueger says:

    The author’s five bullet points are right on par.

    I believe the closed off nature of Lutheran culture is a primary reason that Lutherans do not have as big a theological impact on the greater orthodox evangelical world (I am excluding the Word of Faith dummies from this definition).

    I was Presbyterian(PCA) before my LCMS conversion. It was because of non-Lutherans interacting with Lutheran thought that sparked my interest in Confessional Lutherans (specifically Michael Horton and Tullian Tchvidjian). Also, work of ecumenically minded Lutherans like Robert Kolb, who regularly speaks at Reformed seminaries, and Rod Rosenbladt, who is the Lutheran on White Horse Inn, both had a tremendous influence in my pull on me to Lutheran theology. We need more people like Kolb and Rosenbaldt out there in dialogue with other non-Lutheran confessional church bodies. Gene Edward Veith is another good guy who is well respected by all of Christendom.

    Lutherans also have a tendency to lump the beliefs of non-Lutheran Christians together and not fairly represent them. This needs to stop. We need to communicate what we believe, but ask for clarity on what others believe. A good example of this is predestination. It was my experience in the PCA that most reformed people today may use the terms “Double Predestination”, but they do not believe the doctrine of predestination that Calvin taught. Most Calvinists actually believe in a doctrine of predestination that is closer to the Lutheran doctrine of single predestination, especially the “New Calvinists.”

    I think we need to be more involved in discussion and representing the Lutheran viewpoint at the major conferences within the orthodox evangelical world like Together 4 the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition. I really enjoy that Issue, etc. routinely has solid non-Lutheran Christians on the show like R. Albert Mohler.

    We also need to stop using the terms Reformed and evangelical interchangeably. It is a gross violation of the eight commandment. The historic Reformed faith are those who identify confessional allegiance to either the Westminster Standards, Three Forms of Unity, or the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Not all evangelicals are reformed in that sense, and it would be very rude to call Methodists or Free Will Baptists reformed. It would end the conversation immediately.

    These are just a few observations I have.

  • This is an excellent post that poses a great observation and a great question. I’ve wondered about this lately, especially since I’ve seen so many Reformed brothers talking about Luther and the Reformation, and all the while I wonder, “Have they read the Formula, Law and Gospel, some of the great books that have just come out in the past few years?” And also, “Why aren’t we crossing bridges and talking more?”

    I think that right now is an opportune time to talk Luther and Lutheran theology with conservative, especially Reformed Christians. Liturgy, catechisms, and the sacraments are being rediscovered in these camps, and since we have such a Gospel-centered perspective on all of these, we would do well to engage in conversation and share resources.

    What if seminary faculty and pastors in the LCMS wrote more journal and blog articles directed toward non-Lutherans? For example, I really enjoyed the interview The Gospel Coalition had with Paul McCain awhile back:
    https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/07/21/those-dern-lutherans-an-interview-with-paul-t-mccain/

  • David Shudy says:

    Addressing theses 2, point 1, for those within the wider-Christian world who listen to podcasts, Chris Rosebrough’s “Fighting for the Faith” daily radio program (http://www.piratechristian.com/about-our-ship/) has a wide listening audience outside of Lutheranism, much like Rod Rosenbladt and the White Horse Inn. Many have come over to Lutheranism because of Fighting for the Faith, or they have at least started to question some of the preaching excesses common in the sermons of so many of the most popular pastors within Evangelicalism today.

    The great thing about how Rosebrough (who is a Lutheran Pastor in the AALC) does his show is that he never mentions the words “Lutheran” or “Lutheranism.” He simply compares what popular pastors are saying to what the Bible says in context, and the discrepancy is readily evident. He does a great job of getting people into the Scriptures with a Christ-centered hermeneutic, even with some humor along the way! I’ve heard Rosebrough described as wanting to get Luther’s Small Catechism into the hands of all non-Lutherans. From what I can tell, he is using the internet creatively and effectively to do just that.

  • Sarah Arthur says:

    One of the tricky things is that I have to define what I mean by “grace” and “faith” when I am in conversation with others. A lot of times they are working with a different working definition. But it’s worth the conversation… I like to challenge others in their thinking, toward a more Christ-for-you centered approach, challenge their thinking on what it is that “good works” actually do (like show God’s love to others, for example)

  • Rev. Paul T. McCain says:

    I think an equally important question to be asked and pondered is:

    Do LCMS Lutherans pay attention to Lutheran theology?

  • Tom Von Hagel says:

    Son: Mommy, how come all the boys will not play with me on the playground?
    Mommy: They don’t know what they are missing. You are a wonderful little boy. It is their loss.

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