"Genuine pluralism" and Reformed christology.
I have two goals in writing this article. First, I am attempting to respond to Gross' call to pursue the goal of "genuine pluralism" by reflecting upon my own faith tradition. Second, I hope to encourage persons within that tradition to show greater openness in their relationships with non-Christian people of faith, an openness that would be reflected in Reformed theology.
An event in my own life precipitated my theological reflection on matters related to Reformed christology. A few years ago, I was asked to travel with a group of faculty and students to a Jewish-Christian dialogue event in Oswiecim, Poland. As part of the experience, faculty and students toured Birkenau, one of the death camps in the Auschwitz complex. As our guide was leading us through Birkenau, I moved closer to a Christian student who had been walking alone. I sensed that the student was struggling and I wanted to offer support. Together we learned that at least 1.2 million Jews died at Birkenau. As we were walking by ourselves, the student asked me, "Do you think that the Jews who died here went to hell?" I was very startled by the question. After a pause for reflection, a line from a favorite Presbyterian hymn came to me: "There is a wideness in God's mercy/Like the wideness of the sea."
If I had answered in a way that was more in keeping with traditional Presbyterian doctrine, I might have responded quite differently to the student, perhaps quoting from the Westminster Larger Catechism (adopted by the Scottish General Assembly in 1647); "They who having never heard the gospel, know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the law of nature, or the laws of that religion which they profess; neither is there salvation in any other, but in Christ alone, who is the Savior only of his body, the church." (3) I did not have the heart to reply to the student according to the official doctrine of the Presbyterian Confessions. In that place--in the setting of the Birkenau death camp--to respond in such a way struck me as an inadequate response to the horrific offense that had been committed there.
As this anecdote from my own experience illustrates, a particularly knotty and controversial difficulty for interfaith relations between Christian churches of the Reformed tradition and non-Christian faith groups is the classic statement of Reformed christology that there is no salvation by any other means than through Jesus Christ alone. Historically, Reformed churches have affirmed, again and again, the belief that Jesus Christ is the only savior. (4) This theological tenet has had a deep impact on relationships between Reformed Christians and those from other non-Christian faith communities.
Often christological questions are addressed inwardly--toward fellow members of a particular tradition--but it is important for discussion on such questions to take place in public, dialogic, settings where people of diverse faith communities can respond and be heard. Theologies that have a public impact must be addressed in a broad public forum, in addition to more particular discussions confined to a distinct religious tradition.
A recent christological statement within the PC(USA), Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, was adopted by the General Assembly of the denomination in 2002. (5) Although it was approved by an overwhelming majority vote--and hailed by some as a great step forward--the statement tends to an extent to repeat the exclusivist kind of christology that the Reformed tradition has produced in the past. (6) To illustrate the point that I am trying to make about the tone of the document, I include lines 155-168:
155 Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people 156 everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love 157 in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or 158 admirable living, for "by grace you have been saved 159 through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the 160 gift of God" [Ephesians 2:8]. No one is saved apart from 161 God's gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not 162 presume to limit the sovereign freedom of "God our 163 Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to 164 the knowledge of the truth" [1 Timothy 2:4]. Thus, we 165 neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess 166 explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are 167 saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion 168 belong to God, and are not ours to determine.
The earlier, exclusivist lines are followed by a mitigating statement, which suggests that this christological document does not mean to strictly constrain the means by which God saves. Indeed, the document states that "... we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith." The final sentence of lines 167-68 softens the exclusivist opening even further, by affirming a wise and important principle of the Reformed tradition: "Grace, love, and communion belong to God and are not ours to determine." (7) The statement represented in lines 155-68 as a whole has a gentler tone toward non-Christian religions than the quotation from the Westminster Larger Catechism cited above. But, the end result does not create the kind of openness toward other religious faiths that Gross envisions. Strictly speaking, the combined statement of lines 155-68 represents what theologians describe as an "inclusivist" stance. (8) It allows room for salvation for those who do not explicitly express faith in Christ, but, if a person has received salvation, it is Christ who has done the redeeming.
Of course, an introductory letter to Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ states expressly that the document was not intended to explore a new openness to non-Christian religions. Indeed, the language of the letter suggests that it was written in response to recent christological controversies within the denomination.
The comprehensive witness of the Book of Confessions is sufficient to lead, instruct, and guide the church. From time to time, however, questions arise in the church that call for careful articulation of a particular aspect of Christian faith, drawing upon the testimony of the confessions in a way that illuminates the unique and authoritative witness of the Scriptures. Such occasions do not require a new confession, but rather a faithful expression of the consistent teaching of Scripture and the confessions. In this way, we may be helped to reappropriate central affirmations of the faith and to renew our faithful witness in the world. In recent times, some within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have expressed understandings of Jesus Christ that other Presbyterians believe breach the limits of Scripture and the church's confessions. Many Presbyterians have been dissatisfied with responses to the controversy, and some have questioned the clarity of the General Assembly's affirmation of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. (9)
The document's prefatory letter thus states its purpose to prepare "a concise articulation of the church's historic faith, which also expresses our clear convictions." However, the framers also intend to "help the church better understand the theological richness of the Lordship of Jesus Christ," a statement that mitigates the language of re-appropriation which precedes it. (10) Yet, the document intends to reaffirm traditional understandings of Jesus Christ and his role in salvation in language of sufficient clarity to satisfy those who were disturbed by recent christological controversies within the denomination. (11)
While I hope I have acknowledged some of the obvious strengths of the statement Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, there is a Reformed principle that I would like to stress that would encourage further reconsideration, discussion, and study on the issue of christology and non-Christian religions. A major principle of the Reformed tradition--perhaps the most famous of its many well-considered principles--is that the church is "reformed, always to be reformed." (12) The implications of this principle for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Confessions and/or its theological formulations is compellingly articulated in the Confession of 1967:
Confessions and declarations are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him. No one type of confession is exclusively valid, no one statement is irreformable. Obedience to Jesus Christ alone identifies the one universal church and supplies the continuity of its tradition. This obedience is the ground of the church's duty and free-dom to reform itself in life and doctrine, as new occasions, in God's providence, may demand. (13)
The experience of the Shoah (Holocaust) of World War II and subsequent genocides in our global experience--many of which were fueled in part by religious exclusivism--are compelling reasons for Christians to revisit their theological statements. The participation of Protestants in the atrocities of the Shoah--including Protestants of the Reformed tradition--is something that must be squarely faced and considered from the vantage point of the theological formulations. (14) Studies suggest that the attitudes, theological teachings, and ecclesiastical practices of European churches contributed to a hostile atmosphere that made the Shoah possible. (15) Roman Catholics and Orthodox Catholics participated in genocide in the Balkans in more recent times. Christian participation in genocides of the twentieth century represents a "new occasion"--at least from a historical perspective--which calls for the close and sustained attention of the finest theologians from within the Reformed tradition. Such global occasions as genocide--with its implicit accusation of complicity or indifference on the part of professing Christians--call for a deep commitment to reformation.
An underlying issue with the exclusivist christology included in Hope In the Lord Jesus Christ is how Scripture has been read in order to produce such statements. It is possible, in regard to this kind of christology, that Scripture has been read somewhat narrowly. An important Reformed principle for reading Scripture is to let Scripture interpret Scripture. (16) The implication of this principle, as Shirley C. Guthrie explains it, is that
... when we encounter difficult passages of scripture or passages the interpretation of which is controversial, we are to (1) compare them with other passages which throw a different or more light on the question at hand (Second Helvetic Confession, chap. II: "like and unlike passages"); and (2) seek to understand them in light of the total message of scripture, including parts that may not specifically deal with the question at hand. This is a safeguard against the perennial tendency of all individuals and groups to see and quote only passages of scripture that confirm what they already think and want the Bible to say, to ignore or reject other passages of scripture, and to let a few passages on a particular issue obscure what the biblical message as a whole tells us about God and God's will for our lives. (17)
Though we may use this principle well for other issues, Christians tend to treat scriptural passages that express an exclusivist christology as having a higher level of authority than other parts of scripture. Christians tend to read a passage like John 14:6--Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me"--as having the power somehow to "trump" other, more inclusive passages. The theological constructions of the Reformed tradition tend to read the rest of Scripture as necessarily conforming with passages like Matt 11:27; John 14:6; and Acts 4:12, among others.
There are indications that Scripture's framers or compilers deliberately included books in Scripture that represent diverse perspectives. It is not apparent, however, that these compilers intended to make Scripture's various parts harmonious. For instance, the book of Job challenges some of the traditional wisdom perspectives represented within the book of Proverbs or within some poems from the Book of Psalms. (18) Ecclesiastes, too, seems to challenge the world view of traditional wisdom. The theological perspective of the Letter of James may challenge the perspective of Paul's Letter to the Romans or it may seek to correct a common misinterpretation of Paul's letter. (19) There are additional intra-biblical challenges.
What if Scripture's framers intended to include various passages that offered divergent perspectives on the issue of salvation? What if Scripture's framers understood salvation as a complex issue and so included passages that would represent the various facets of salvation to their readers? The habit of the Reformed tradition of making passages expressing the exclusivist christology of salvation by Christ alone to provide the lens through which other passages must be read may violate the principles of interpreting from the perspective of the "total message of Scripture" or of comparing "like and unlike passages." We of the Reformed churches often seem determined to make all Scripture conform to a few, special passages.
A broad reading of Scripture would have to face and resolve the challenge or witness of such passages as Romans 11. In that chapter, Paul struggles with and resolves the issue of what happens to the Jewish people now that salvation is obtained through faith in Christ. He wrestles with the issue in the Letter to the Galatians, then in Romans 9-11. (20) Paul reaches his conclusion at the end of chapter 11 and expresses his conviction that all Israel shall be saved (v. 26). In verse 28b, Paul declares that "as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors." He adds the explanation of verse 29; "For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable." Finally, Paul expresses his wonder at the mystery of God's ways and affirms his sense of God's providence over such matters in verses 33-36. Though Paul does not know how the redemption of the Jews shall take place, he expresses his confidence that they shall be included in God's plan.
Another passage that may challenge the point of view that there is only one way to receive salvation is Luke 10:25-37. In that passage, a lawyer asks Jesus, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds by asking the lawyer what he thinks about that from reading the law. The lawyer answers Jesus, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Verse 28 offers Jesus' reaction: "And he said to him, 'You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.'" When the lawyer asks who might be his neighbor, Jesus offers the parable of the good Samaritan. To the question of how one might obtain eternal life, Jesus confirms that love of God and love of neighbor will suffice.
Matthew 25:31-46 implies that something besides faith in Christ alone might be a factor in how one spends eternity. In that passage, Jesus tells of the judgment of the nations at the end of time. He declares that those who fed the hungry, gave the thirsty drink, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoners would be those who would inherit the kingdom.
Some biblical passages stress God's freedom to give grace to whomever God wishes, such as Exod 33:19, "And he said, 'I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, "The LORD"; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.'" Psalm 115:3 seems to support this kind of sovereignty: "Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases." Amos 9:7 challenges the ideology that Israel alone is God's people: "Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the LORD. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?" (21) This verse may serve to challenge the idea that Christians alone are the recipients of God's salvation.
When one spends a great deal of time reading the texts of the Hebrew Bible, as I do, one is confronted by numerous passages that depict the God of Israel as the deliverer of various people. The God of Israel serves as savior to the people of Israel or their ancestors, primarily, but God's grace is not confined to them, even in the Hebrew Bible. Since, in the Reformed tradition, lay and clergy alike craft theological statements and since such statements are voted upon by elder and clergy representatives, I will venture an observation about the use of the Hebrew Bible within the PC(USA). In all the official documents of the church, the role of the Hebrew Bible as part of Holy Scripture is upheld, but its texts are often neglected in the life of the individual churches. Some clergy rarely preach from the Hebrew Bible and Bible studies most often focus on the texts from the Christian Scriptures. There are clergy, of course, in the PC(USA) who are careful to use the Hebrew Bible in a balanced way in preaching, teaching, and liturgy, but there is a tendency among others to neglect its passages. If the Hebrew Bible suffers neglect in some of the individual churches, how will readers and listeners be confronted by the idea that God saves--in passages that lack an explicit reference to Jesus Christ? Those who take the witness of the Hebrew Bible into balanced consideration in their theological formulations emphasize the unity of the Triune God and respect the principle that the works of the Trinity are indivisible (Opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). (22) God saves.
While the doctrine that salvation comes only through Christ follows the principle of Scriptural interpretation called "The Rule of Faith" (which means that one should be guided by the doctrinal consensus of the church), does the doctrine as it is currently formulated, understood, and taught adhere to "The Rule of Love?" (23) Is it loving to focus on those passages of Scripture that confirm our sense of religious superiority, when there are passages that offer a broader point of view? Is it loving to hold on to theologies that reinforce barriers between the Reformed churches and people of other faiths?
Another important question to ask in regard to Scripture and the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation is this: have we thoroughly explored the historical and sociological background to passages that promote an exclusivist christology? Were there factors related to the ancient context that shaped these christologies? The Confession of 1967 states that "the church ... has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding." (24) Though the Confession of 1967 acknowledges that Scripture is divinely inspired, the words are human words, "conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos that were then current." If the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) follows its obligation to explore the historical context in which the biblical text was written and there are concrete, historical reasons for the emphasis on "salvation only through Christ," how would that impact our appraisal of the doctrine's centrality? The principle that interpretation of the Bible requires earnest study entails that interpreters must attempt to discern what in Scripture represents an accepted cultural attitude and what constitutes a message from God. (25)
Two other Reformed principles of interpretation are germane here: the principle that Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, is the center of Scripture and the principle of dependence upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpreting and applying God's message. The first principle suggests that Jesus' attitudes and teaching should inform our interpretations. (26) In this instance, the church should ask itself if the doctrine of salvation only through Christ is something that Jesus himself would promote. If the purpose of the incarnation was to reconcile human beings to God, does the doctrine of salvation only through Christ serve that primary purpose? Or, does this exclusivist doctrine work against the reconciliation of human beings to one another and so represent an attitude that would not be supported by Jesus himself? It is a complex issue indeed. The second principle of reliance upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit means that the Spirit offers ongoing illumination of the biblical text. As Jack Rogers explains the principle, we believe that "God continues to guide us and lead us into deeper understandings of biblical truth, correcting our errors." (27) Perhaps, as Presbyterians continue to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit as they interpret Scripture in reference to the christology of Christ as the only savior they will be led to deeper understandings of the issue of salvation in Scripture.
The topic I have attempted to address here is also one of the issues that the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church has been charged to address. This group has prepared resources for the use of members of the church to help them engage in theological reflection. In the first video released by the group, Rev. Dr. Frances Taylor Gench describes Presbyterian principles of "Biblical Authority and Interpretation." She emphasizes that in the Reformed tradition, we need everyone in the church to interpret Scripture. "We need each other to interpret the Bible, to challenge and correct each other, to expand our reflection and catch matters we overlooked. We need each other as we figure out what God is calling us to be and do in our time and place." I offer this article in that spirit--as one interpreter among many others. It remains for the many other interpreters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and, more broadly, the interpreters of the Reformed tradition to decide if "genuine pluralism" is a goal the church should pursue. If other interpreters decide that it is appropriate to aim for this goal in relationship to the church's christology, I have here offered only preliminary suggestions for issues that may be explored. Nevertheless, I hope that I have helped the church to engage in theological reflection about christology that genuinely hears and honors the critique of persons from other faith traditions. As the Confession of 1967 puts it, "Repeatedly God has used the insight of non-Christians to challenge the church to renewal." (28)
I would like to close with a prayer from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. May his words inform our continued theological reflections in the area of christology.
We come before you, source of all being, As sinners. We have betrayed you. We saw a great lie raise its head, And we did not honour the truth. We saw our brethren in the direst need, And we feared only for our own safety. We come before you, source of all mercy, As confessors of our sins. After the ferment of these terrible times, Send us time of assurance. After wandering so long in darkness, Let us walk in the light of the sun. After the falsehood of the current way, Build a road for us by your Word. And until you wipe out our guilt, Lord, make us patient. (29)
1. Rita M. Gross, "Religious Diversity: Some Implications for Monotheism," CrossCurrents 49 (Fall 1999), 349-66.
2. Ibid., 357.
3. The Westminster Larger Catechism, Answer to Question 60 (7.170). The reference numbers in parentheses are those provided in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part 1: The Book of Confessions (Louisville, Ky.: Office of the General Assembly, 1999).
4. See, for example, The Scots Confession, Ch. XVI (3.16); The Second Helvetic Confession, Ch. V (5.025); The Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. X (6.056) and Ch. XII (6.067); The Confession of 1967, Part I, Section A (9.11).
5. Office of Theology and Worship, Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ (Louisville, Ky.: Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.], 2002).
6. For a brief description of exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist models for christology and salvation, see Brennan R. Hill, Paul Knitter, and William Madges, Faith, Religion & Theology: A Contemporary Introduction (Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications), 210-16.
7. This principle was emphasized by John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion; "For here we are not bidden to distinguish between reprobate and elect--that is for God alone, not for us, to do-but to establish with certainty in our hearts that all those who, by the kindness of God the Father, through the working of the Holy Spirit, have entered into fellowship with Christ, are set apart as God's property and personal possession; and that when we are of their number we share that great grace." (Book IV, Ch. 1, section 3, John T. McNeill, ed. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XXI, trans. Ford Lewis Battles [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960], 1015-1016).
8. See Gross, "Religious Diversity," 355-58.
9. Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, 6.
11. The precipitating even that sparked the controversy seems to be a speech which was delivered by Rev. Dirk Ficca to the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference that met July 26-29, 2000. In the speech, Ficca explored some theological alternatives to the "only through Christ" doctrine of salvation. Reactions to the speech sent ripples throughout the denomination. Many argued that Ficca's speech did not make clear which of the theological alternatives represented the official, accepted christology of the denomination. The widespread concern resulted in a flurry of overtures to the 2001 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that called for the denomination to reaffirm the traditional understanding of salvation in the clearest of language.
12. The Latin phrase is ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. According to Anna Case-Winters, the original sense of the phrase during the Reformation signified "a church reformed and always to be reformed according to the Word of God." Scripture and the Spirit were regarded as the guide and impetus for the church's reform. An explanatory addition to the motto appears frequently in various passages, making the full phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi dei, which Case-Winters translates: "a church reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God." (See Anna Case-Winters, "Our Misused Motto," Presbyterians Today (May 2004): http://www.pcusa.org/today/believe/past/may04/reformed.htm.
13. The Book of Confessions, 253 (9.03).
14. Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel point out that "The German census of May 1939 indicates that 54 percent of Germans considered themselves Protestant and 40 percent considered themselves Catholic, with only 3.5 percent claiming to be neo-pagan 'believers in God,' and 1.5 percent unbelievers" (Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel, eds., Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust [Minneapolis: Fortess, 1999], 10).
15. See the extensive treatment of these issues in regard to the Roman Catholic Church in Europe in James Carroll, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews--A History (Boston: Mariner Books, 2002). It would be wonderful if the same kind of study would be done of Protestant churches in Europe.
16. Shirley C. Guthrie, Always Being Reformed: Faith for a Fragmented World (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 26. Guthrie draws on Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture and Biblical Authority and Interpretation (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 1992), 12-13.
18. For instance, Carol A. Newsom argues that "the fundamental distinction between the righteous and the wicked was the foundation of moral thought in the ancient Near East, including Israel (see Pss 1:6; 7:8-9 [9-10]; 9:4-5 [5-6]. The role of the gods as ultimate authority for and upholders of the moral order was axiomatic (Ps. 89:14 ). Job's assertion that God makes no such distinction is a radical denial of the basis of the moral order" (Carol A. Newsom, "The Book of Job," in The New Interpreter's Bible [ed. Leander E. Keck; Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 319-637 ).
19. Luke Timothy Johnson provides a thorough treatment of the relationship between Paul and James in The Letter of James: A New Translation and Commentary (AB 37A; New York: Doubleday, 1995), 58-65. There Johnson acknowledges some difficulties of making comparisons between the two authors.
20. Most biblical scholars regard Galatians as the earlier of the two letters.
21. Walter Brueggemann, "'Exodus' in the Plural (Amos 9:7)," in Walter Brueggemann and George W. Stroup, eds., Many Voices, One God: Being Faithful in a Pluralistic World (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), 19.
22. Guthrie emphasizes the indivisibility of the works of the trinity (Opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). See Guthrie, Always Being Reformed, 42. He notes the neglect of this theological principle within the Reformed confessions, with the exception of the Declaration of Faith, Presbyterian Church in the United States (1976), 5.8: "We affirm the unity of God's being and work. We may not separate the work of God as Creator from the work of God as Redeemer. We may not set the Son's love against the Father's justice. We may not value the Holy Spirit's work above the work of the Father and Son. The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit are one God." (Lukas Vischer, ed. Reformed Witness Today: A Collection of Confessions and Statements of Faith Issued by Reformed Churches [Bern: Evangelische Arbeitsstelle Oekumene Schweiz, 1982], 247.)
23. See Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture and Biblical Authority and Interpretation, 13-15. See also Jack Rogers, Reading the Bible and the Confessions: The Presbyterian Way (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1999), 41-44.
24. Book of Confessions (9.29). This is also one of the principles for scriptural interpretation in Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture and Biblical Authority and Interpretation, 8.
25. See Rogers, Reading the Bible and the Confessions, 44-48.
26. Ibid., 32.
27. Ibid., 38.
28. Book of Confessions (9.42).
29. Robert Van de Weyer, compiler, The HarperCollins Book of Prayers: A Treasury of Prayers Through the Ages (San Francisco; HarperCollins, 1993), 72.
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|Author:||Melcher, Sarah J.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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