"Church Age" redirects here. For the Mr. Del album, see Church Age (album).
For other uses, see Dispensation (disambiguation).

Dispensationalism is a religious interpretive system for the Bible. It considers Biblical history as divided deliberately by God into defined periods or ages to each of which God has allotted distinctive administrative principles. According to dispensationalist interpretation, each age of the plan of God is thus administered in a certain way, and humanity is held responsible as a steward during that time. Each dispensation is marked by a cycle. God reveals Himself and His truth to humanity in a new way. Humanity is held responsible to conform to that revelation. Humanity rebels and fails the test. God judges humanity and introduces a new period of probation under a new administration.


The number of dispensations discerned by theologians within Biblical history vary typically from three to eight (See History below). The three- and four-dispensation schemes are often referred to as minimalist, as they include the commonly recognized divisions within Biblical history. The typical seven-dispensation scheme is as follows:

Numerous purposes for this cycle of administrations have been suggested. God is seen to be testing humanity under varying conditions, while vindicating His ways with humanity in originally granting them free will. The dispensations reveal God's truth in a progressive manner, and are designed to maximize the glory that will accrue to God as He brings history to a climax with a Kingdom administered by Christ, thus vindicating His original plan of administering rule on earth through "human" means. The goal of the dispensations is summarized by Paul the Apostle in Ephesians 1:9-10, "He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth" (NASB).

Below is a table comparing the various dispensational schemes:


Progressive revelation

One of the most important underlying theological concepts for dispensationalism is progressive revelation. While some non-dispensationalists start with progressive revelation in the New Testament and refer this revelation back into the Old Testament, dispensationalists begin with progressive revelation in the Old Testament and read forward in a historical sense. Therefore, there is an emphasis on a gradually developed unity as seen in the entirety of Scripture. Biblical covenants are associated with the dispensations. When these Biblical covenants are compared and contrasted, the result is a historical ordering of different dispensations. Also with regard to the different Biblical covenant promises, dispensationalism emphasises to whom these promises were written, the original recipients. This has resulted in certain fundamental dispensational beliefs, such as a distinction between Israel and the Church.

Historical-grammatical interpretation

Another important theological concept is the emphasis on what is referred to as the historical-grammatical, or literal, method of interpretation. Just as Israel was said to have literally experienced the curses mentioned by the Old Testament, dispensationalists believe that they will one day, literally, receive the blessings mentioned by the Old Testament. Just as it is with progressive revelation, the historical-grammatical method is not a concept or practice that is exclusive just to dispensationalists. However, a dispensational distinctive is created when the historical-grammatical method of interpretation is coupled with an emphasis on progressive revelation along with the historical development of the covenants in Scripture.

Distinction between Israel and the Church

Some dispensationalists profess a definite distinction between Israel and the Church. For dispensationalists, Israel is an ethnic nation[1] consisting of Hebrews (Israelites), beginning with Abraham and continuing in existence to the present. The Church consists of all saved individuals in this present dispensation—i.e., from the "birth of the Church" in Acts until the time of the Rapture.[2] The distinction between Israel and the Church is not mutually exclusive, as there is a recognized overlap between the two.[3]:295 The overlap consists of Jewish Christians (such as Peter and Paul – although the Apostle Paul was also a Roman citizen, by birth, he was of the tribe of Benjamin and a Jewish nationalist (Rom 9:1-3)) - who are ethnically Jewish and also have faith in Jesus Christ. Dispensationalists also believe that toward the end of the Tribulation, Israel as a nation will embrace Jesus as their messiah right before his second coming during the Great Tribulation. The spectrum of teaching on Israel and the Church may be depicted as below:[4]

Classical dispensationalists refer to the present day Church as a "parenthesis" or temporary interlude in the progress of Israel's prophesied history.[5] Progressive dispensationalism "softens" the Church/Israel distinction by seeing some Old Testament promises as expanded by the New Testament to include the Church. However, progressives never view this expansion as replacing promises to its original audience, Israel.[6]

Covenant Theology is one alternative opinion to dispensationalism that posits that God has one people Israel and the promises to Israel made in the Old Testament were fulfilled by Jesus Christ, the new Israel, and the object of Abraham's hope. Dispensationalists have often criticized Covenant Theology as being identical with what they term "Replacement Theology" or Supersessionism, the concept that the Church has replaced Israel. However, in Covenant Theology, the church is not a replacement for the nation of Israel, but has always been the 'spiritual Israel.' Covenant Theologians distinguish between Israel of the flesh (ethnic Hebrews) and Israel of the Spirit (the universal Church), which began with Adam and Eve and matured largely within ethnic Israel. Jewish Christians are included in the spiritual Israel.[7] Covenant Theologians likewise accuse Dispensationalism of replacement theology. The position of Covenant Theology on the relationship of the physical and spiritual Israels can be summarized in Romans 2:28-29 and in Romans 9:6.[8]

Start of the Church Age

Mainstream dispensationalists such as Scofield[9][10] and Ironside[11] identify Pentecost, in the second chapter of Acts, with the start of the Church as distinct from Israel; this may be referred to as the "Acts 2" position. Grace Movement Dispensationalists believe that the church started after Acts 2, emphasizing primarily the ministry of Paul. Advocates of the "mid-Acts" position, consider the regular Gentile form and order of the dispensation open in the hands of the apostle Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles. Paul does not derive his ministry from the other apostles nor was he indeed a successor to our Lord's Jewish mission. He had a unique commission from the Lord in heaven to go to the Gentiles. Thus they identify the start of the church with the salvation of Saul in Acts 9,[12] or with Paul's first missionary journey in Acts 13. The 'Acts 28' position, most notably expounded by E. W. Bullinger and Charles H. Welch, posits the beginning of the church in Acts chapter 28 where the Apostle Paul quoted Isaiah 6:9,10 concerning the blindness of Israel and announced that the salvation of God is sent to the Gentile world in Acts 28:28.

Hyperdispensationalists are considered divisive[13] notably because they reject the rite of water baptism practiced by almost all Christian denominations. They do believe in baptism, but instead of water baptism, they believe in baptism by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, which occurs when a person becomes saved by believing that Jesus Christ died for their sins. Grace Movement Dispensationalists do not see water baptism as being necessary in this dispensation. Acts 28 dispensationalists also believe in the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:5 being a spiritual baptism which identifies the believer with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.


Comparison of Christian millennial interpretations

Dispensationalists are premillennialists who affirm a future, literal 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ which merges with and continues on to the eternal state in the "new heavens and the new earth",[14] and they claim that the millennial kingdom will be theocratic in nature and not mainly soteriological, as it is considered by George Eldon Ladd and others with a non-dispensational form of premillennialism. Dispensationalism is known for its opinions respecting the nation of Israel during this millennial kingdom reign, in which Israel as a nation plays a major role and regains a king, a land, and an everlasting kingdom.

The vast majority of dispensationalists profess the pretribulation rapture, with small minorities professing to either a mid-tribulation or post-tribulation rapture.[15]


The concept of the arranging of divisions of Biblical history dates back to Irenaeus during the second century. Other Christian writers since then, such as Augustine of Hippo and Joachim of Fiore (1135–1202), have also offered their own arrangements of history.[3]:116 Many Protestant and Calvinist writers, including Herman Witsius, Francis Turretin, John Bale, Thomas Brightman, Henry Finch, John Archer, Thomas Manton, William Gouge, Thomas Goodwin, John Birchensha, William Sherwin, Francis Hutchinson, Pierre Jurieu, Pierre Poiret, John Edwards, and Isaac Watts also developed theological schemes and divisions of history, in particular after the Westminster Confession of Faith noted "various dispensations".[16] Other concepts such as premillennialism and the rapture also predated dispensationalism as a system. From the Reformed tradition emerged Covenant Theology, which considers Biblical history as different covenants between God and humanity, but not dispensations.

Scottish Pastor Edward Irving was influenced by the book "Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty", during the 1820s. The book had been written by a Jesuit priest named Manuel Lacunza, but was published by the name "Ben Ezra". Irving translated the book from Spanish to English, added his own commentary and had the book published during 1827. Irving taught a form of Dispensational Theology at the Albury Prophetic conference.[17]

As a system, dispensationalism developed from the Plymouth Brethren philosophy of the 1830s in Ireland and England, and in the teachings of John Nelson Darby (1800–82). The original concept came from Darby's interpretation of 2 Timothy 2:15, "...rightly dividing the word of truth".

Darby traveled extensively to continental Europe, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States in an attempt to make converts to the Brethren philosophy. Over time, Darby's eschatological opinions became more popular in the United States, especially among Baptists and Old School Presbyterians.[18]:293

United States of America

John Nelson Darby is recognized as the father of dispensationalism,[3]:10, 293 which was later adopted, modified significantly and then made popular in the United States by Cyrus Scofield's Scofield Reference Bible. Charles Henry Mackintosh, 1820–96, with his popular style spread Darby's teachings to humbler elements of society and may be regarded as the journalist of the Brethren philosophy. Mackintosh popularized Darby more than any other Brethren author.

Although it is often claimed there was no Christian teaching of a "rapture" before Darby began preaching about it in the 1830s, recent research has discovered many sources in the preceding 250 years showing a development of the concept.[19] In spite of that, Darby is sometimes credited with originating the "secret rapture" theory wherein Christ will suddenly remove his bride, the Church, from this world before the judgments of the tribulation. Dispensationalist beliefs about the fate of the Jews and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel put dispensationalists at the forefront of Christian Zionism, because "God is able to graft them in again", and they believe that in his grace he will do so according to their understanding of Old Testament prophecy. They believe that, while the methodologies of God may change, his purposes to bless Israel will never be forgotten; just as he has shown unmerited favour to the Church, he will do so to a remnant of Israel to fulfill all the promises made to the genetic seed of Abraham.

Dispensationalism was introduced to North America by James Inglis (1813–72), by a monthly magazine named Waymarks in the Wilderness, published intermittently between 1854 and 1872. During 1866, Inglis organized the Believers' Meeting for Bible Study, which introduced dispensationalist ideas to a small but influential circle of American evangelicals. They were disturbed by the inroads of liberalism and saw premillennialism as an answer. Dispensationalism was introduced as a premillennial position, and it largely, over a period of several decades, took over the Fundamentalist movement which stood against liberalism. The American church denominations rejected Darby's ecclesiology but accepted his eschatology. Many of these churches were Presbyterian and Baptist, and they retained Darby's Calvinistic soteriology who had applied it to his notion of dispensations. After Inglis' death, James H. Brookes (1830–98), the pastor of Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, organized the Niagara Bible Conference (1876–97) to continue the dissemination of dispensationalist ideas. Dispensationalism was boosted after Dwight L. Moody (1837–1899) learned of "dispensational truth" from an unidentified member of the Brethren during 1872. Moody worked with Brookes and other dispensationalists and encouraged the spread of dispensationalism, but apparently never learned the nuances of the dispensationalist system.

Dispensationalism began to evolve during this time, most significantly when a significant body of dispensationalists proposed the "pre-tribulation" rapture. This caused a dispute with the "historical premillennialists" of the same the Fundamentalist philosophy. Dispensationalists known by Moody include Reuben Archer Torrey (1856–1928), James M. Gray (1851–1925), Cyrus I. Scofield (1843–1921), William J. Erdman (1833–1923), A. C. Dixon (1854–1925), A. J. Gordon (1836–95) and William Eugene Blackstone, author of the bestselling book of the 1800s titled, "Jesus is Coming" (endorsed by Torrey and Erdman). These men were activist evangelists who promoted a host of Bible conferences and other missionary and evangelistic efforts.

They also gave the dispensationalist philosophy institutional permanence by assuming leadership of the new independent Bible institutes such as the Moody Bible Institute during 1886, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University) during 1908, and Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University, formerly Philadelphia Biblical University) during 1913. The network of related institutes that soon developed became the nucleus for the spread of American dispensationalism.

The efforts of CI Scofield and his associates introduced dispensationalism to a wider audience in America by his Scofield Reference Bible. The publication of the Scofield Reference Bible during 1909 by the Oxford University Press for the first time displayed overtly dispensationalist notes on the pages of the Biblical text. The Scofield Reference Bible became a popular Bible used by independent Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in the United States. Evangelist and Bible teacher Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952), who was influenced by Scofield, founded the Dallas Theological Seminary during 1924, which has become the main institution of dispensationalism in America. More recently, the Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, became another dispensational school.

The Grace philosophy, which began about 1938 with the teaching ministries of JC O'Hair, Cornelius R. Stam, Henry T. Hudson, and Charles Baker has been termed "ultra" or "hyper" dispensationalism. The term serves to distinguish a theological system that has applied the tenets of dispensationalism much more consistently than the Acts 2 position. Thus it has also been designated at times as "consistent" dispensationalism. J.C. O'Hair during the early 1920s understood the "sign" gifts to be not for this age of grace and thus not for the present church. Soon thereafter, he understood as a correlating dispensational truth that water baptism could not then apply to this dispensation either. Among others, DeHaan and Ironside were sympathetic and did not perform the water rite themselves but none of these men forbade it if a Christian had a conscience to be baptized. By the 1930s, J.C. O'Hair rejected an Acts chapter two beginning of the church and started to explore and sympathize with a position similar to Sir Robert Anderson and E.W. Bullinger. It was during this time that Ironside wrote "Wrongly Dividing The Brethren" attacking "Bullingerism" (i.e., the Acts 28 position). Some have failed to understand that Ironside's book does not address the Mid-Acts position which O'Hair had not settled on until later. Almost all attacks on hyper-dispensationalism totally fail to differentiate between the Mid-Acts position and the Acts 28 position. But J,C, O'Hair also rejected the Acts 28 position after studying the writings of Bullinger and C.H. Welch. O'Hair seems to finally have landed on the Mid-Acts position by about 1938.[20]

The contrasts between law and grace, prophecy and mystery, Israel and the Church, the body of Christ were promoted by Scofield, Barnhouse and Ironside, then studied and taught by O'Hair, Stam and other "grace" teachers. It is however contended by dispensational teachers such as Charles Caldwell Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost, and Arnold Fruchtenbaum that ultradispensationalism is removed enough from dispensationalism not any longer to be dispensationalism at all. Nevertheless, ultradispensationalism continues to be forcefully advocated by many as the consistent position on dispensationalism and does indeed in many ways remain close to Darby unlike modified Dispensationalism. The dispensationalists allege that the Acts 2 position does not take the time to properly and fully understand the Mid-Acts position and challenge it in any way other than superficially if at all. Mostly, they feel consistent dispensationalists are ignored and that, until consistent dispensationalism is taken seriously, such dismissals by Acts 2 proponents cannot be taken seriously. Ultradispensationalists consider themselves fundamentalists, evangelical, and serious dispensationalists holding to the tenets of dispensationalism far more strictly and precisely than the more popular Acts 2 position.

During 2007, a new dispensational opinion was formed by Steve Urick, termed Acts 1 Dispensationalism. This opinion considers the church and Israel as being one in the body of Christ via his death on the cross (Ephesians 2:12–19) and the reign of Christ as the "Head over all" the family of God, in heaven and earth, as beginning in Acts 1, after he ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:10, 20–23; 3:15).

Dispensationalism has become very popular with American evangelicalism, especially among nondenominational Bible churches, Baptists, Pentecostal, and Charismatic groups.

Protestant denomiminations that as a whole embrace covenant theology reject dispensationalism. For example, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA termed it "evil and subversive" and regards it as a heresy.[21] The Churches of Christ underwent division during the 1930s as Robert Henry Boll, who taught a variant of the dispensational philosophy, and Foy E. Wallace, representing the prevalent postmillennial-become-amillennial opinion, disputed severely over eschatology.[22]


Dispensationalism rejects the notion of supersessionism, still considers the Jewish people as God's chosen people, and sees the modern State of Israel as resulting in the Israel who will receive the fulfillment of all God's Old Testament promises.

John Nelson Darby taught, and most subsequent dispensationalists have maintained, that God considers the Jews as his chosen people even as they remain in rejection of Jesus Christ, and God continues to have a function for them in the dispensational, prophetic scheme. Dispensationalists teach that a remnant within the nation of Israel will be born again, called of God, and by grace brought to realize they crucified their Messiah. Dispensationalism is unique in teaching that the Church is a provisional parenthesis, a "mystery" period, meaning that it was not revealed in the Old Testament, directly, which period will end with the rapture of the church and the Jewish remnant entering the Great Tribulation. Israel will finally recognize Jesus as their promised Messiah during the trials that come upon them in this Tribulation. Darby's teachings envision Judaism as continuing to enjoy God's protection literally to the End of Time, and teach that God has a separate 'program', to use J. Dwight Pentecost's term, for each Israel and the Church. Dispensationalists teach that God has eternal covenants with Israel, which cannot be violated.

While stressing that God has not forsaken those physically descended from Abraham through Isaac, dispensationalists do affirm the necessity for Jews to receive Jesus as Messiah. They claim that God made unconditional covenants with Israel as a people and nation in the Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic and the New Covenant.


Christian dispensationalists sometimes endorse what some critics have pejoratively termed Judeophilia — ranging from endorsement of the state of Israel, to observing traditional Jewish holidays and practicing traditionally Jewish religious rituals. (See also Christian Zionism, Jewish Christians, Judaizers, Hebrew Roots, and Messianic Judaism). Dispensationalists typically endorse the modern state of Israel (without criticism), consider its existence as a political entity as God revealing His will for the Last Days, and reject anti-Semitism.[23]

Messianic Judaism

Main article: Olive Tree Theology

Dispensationalists tend to have special interest in the Jews because the dispensationalist hermeneutic honors Biblical passages that list Jews as among God's chosen people (the others would be the Gentiles in the church, and proselytes to Judaism). Some Messianic Jews (Messianic Judaism), however, reject dispensationalism in favor of a related but distinct hermeneutics, termed Olive Tree Theology.[24] The name refers to the passages of Romans 11:17–18: "If some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive, were grafted in among them and have become equal sharers in the rich root of the olive tree, then don't boast as if you were better than the branches!"

United States politics

Political analyst Richard Allen Greene has argued that dispensationalism has had a major influence on the foreign policy of the United States. This influence has included continued aid for the state of Israel.[25]

Political commentator Kevin Phillips claimed in American Theocracy (2006) that dispensationalist and other fundamentalist Christians, together with the oil lobby, have provided political assistance for the invasion of Iraq during 2003.


Dispensationalist themes form the basis of the popular Left Behind series of books. However, not all dispensationalists agree with the theology of authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

See also


  1. Ryrie, Charles Caldwell (1965). Dispensationalism Today. Chicago: Moody Press. p. 137.
  2. Ironside, Harry A. "Not Wrath, but Rapture". The prophetic clock stopped at Calvary; it will not start again until ‘the fulness of the Gentiles be come in’.
  3. 1 2 3 Blaising, Craig A.; Bock, Darrell L (1993). Progressive Dispensationalism. Wheaton, IL: BridgePoint. ISBN 1-56476-138-X.
  4. Mike Stallard. "Progressive Dispensationalism" (PDF). Ladd starts the eschatological kingdom in the Gospels. Progressives start the kingdom with the ascension of Christ. The most significant difference, however, is that Ladd treats the Church as a kind of "New Israel" in his commentary on Revelation. Progressive dispensationalism in no way advocates that the Church replaces Israel as in Ladd and in a more developed way in Covenant Theology (including brands of covenant premillennialism).
  5. Harry A. Ironside. "The Great Parenthesis". It is the author's fervent conviction that the failure to understand what is revealed in Scripture concerning the Great Parenthesis between Messiah's rejection, with the consequent setting aside of Israel nationally, and the regathering of God's earthly people and recognition by the Lord in the last days, is the fundamental cause for many conflicting and unscriptural prophetic teachings. Once this parenthetical period is understood and the present work of God during this age is apprehended, the whole prophetic program unfolds with amazing clearness.
  6. Mike Stallard. "Progressive Dispensationalism" (PDF). some OT promises can be expanded by the NT. However, this expansion is never viewed as replacing or undoing the implications of that OT promise to its original audience, Israel. For example, the Church's participation in the New Covenant taught in the NT can add the Church to the list of recipients of the New Covenant promises made in the OT. However, such participation does not rule out the future fulfillment of the OT New Covenant promises to Israel at the beginning of the Millennium. Thus, the promise can have a coinciding or overlapping fulfillment through NT expansions of the promise.
  7. Vern Poythress (1986). "Understanding Dispensationalists". section 12. Retrieved 2011-03-01. Now some Jews have been cut off from their place in the olive tree, so that Gentiles might be grafted in. But Jews in their cutting off remain cultivated olive branches, and they can be grafted in again. This is quite consistent with the fact that there is only one holy (cultivated) olive tree, hence one people of God, and one root.
  8. Greg Bahnsen. "Not All of Israel is Israel".
  9. Charles Caldwell Ryrie (1995), Dispensationalism, (p.53) ...the Scofield Reference Bible... is Watts's [dispensational] outline, not Darby's!
  10. Isaac Watts (1812). The Harmony of all the Religions which God ever Prescribed to Men and all his Dispensations towards them. The kingdom of Christ, therefore, or the christian dispensation was not properly set up in all its forms, doctrines and duties, till the following day of Pentecost, and the pouring down of the Spirit upon the Apostles
  11. Harry A. Ironside. "Wrongly Dividing The Word of Truth. Chapter 3: The Transitional Period. Is the Church of The Acts the Body of Christ?". Here we are distinctly informed as to the way in which the Body has been brought into existence, and this is exactly what took place at Pentecost.
  12. Robert C. Brock. "The Teachings of Christ". The ministry of Christ did not stop with His ascension in the first chapter of the book of Acts. Christians have failed to realize that when Saul is saved in Acts 9, a NEW ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ is begun by God, and this NEW ministry ushers in this present age of grace. Saul's name is changed to Paul, and he is designated as the Apostle of the Gentiles (Romans 11:13). He is given revelations from the risen Christ, and these are the revelations embracing Christianity.
  13. Sarah Pulliam (2007-10-10), "Dispensational Dustup: Student dismissed from leadership for 'potentially divisive' beliefs", Christianity Today, Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota removed a senior [Josh Strelecki] as student ministries director because of theological views that some at the college called "hyper-dispensational [and] potentially divisive"... Strelecki holds to three controversial beliefs: that the book of James was written for Israel and not for the church; that the church started with Paul and not at Pentecost; and that Israel was saved by faith and works, not by faith alone... Northwestern upholds a broadly evangelical doctrinal statement...
  14. Rev. 21
  15. Walvoord, John F (1990). Blessed hope and the tribulation. Contemporary Evangelical. ISBN 978-0-310-34041-6.
  16. Watson, William (2015). Dispensationalism Before Darby: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century English Apocalypticism. Silverton, OR: Lampion Press. ISBN 978-1-942-61403-6., chapter 6
  17. Genesis of Dispensational Theology https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ee4RS5pDntQ
  18. Elwell, Walter A. (1984). Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. ISBN 0-8010-3413-2.
  19. Watson, William (2015). Dispensationalism Before Darby: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century English Apocalypticism. Silverton, OR: Lampion Press. ISBN 978-1-942-61403-6.
  20. http://gracehistoryproject.blogspot.com/
  21. "Reflections: dispensationalism". Bible.org..
  22. Prior to World War II, there had been no significant presence of amillennialism in Churches of Christ. See also Augustine of Hippo, the theologian who established amillennialism as the eschatology of the Roman Catholic Church.
  23. http://www.foigm.org/
  24. David H. Stern, Messianic Jewish Manifesto, The Complete Jewish Bible, and The Jewish New Testament Commentary .
  25. Greene, Richard Allen (2006-07-19). "Evangelical Christians plead for Israel". BBC News. Retrieved 2007-03-20.

Further reading

External links

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