Posts Tagged ‘baptism’

Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross (eds.), Baptism, the New Testament and the Church (JSNT Supplement Series 171; Sheffield Academic Press, 1999)

In his article, “Open and Closed Membership”, Kenneth Roxburgh acknowledges that “It seems evident that, in the early days of the book of Acts, baptism was ‘simple and spontaneous’ and appeared to be part and parcel of the experience of conversion.” (p. 444; quoting James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (T&T Clark, 1997), p. 448).

In reaction to some churches who are very dogmatic about baptism, one can swing to the other extreme and devalue or dismiss water-baptism altogether (e.g. Quakers and Salvation Army). Roxburgh does however note that

by the time Paul visits the city of Corinth about 50 CE, baptism is not so important that the apostle felt obliged to baptize each believer. Indeed, when he writes to the congregation he confesses that he cannot remember the names of all the people he had baptized. When we consider that the congregation probably “comprised no more than about three or four dozen” believers, this indicates that “Paul deliberately de-emphasises baptism”. [quoting James Dunn, 1 Corinthians (NTG; Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), p. 14 and ibid, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 450]

With respect to open membership, Roxburgh makes a distinction between believers transferring from another denomination where immersion was not practiced and the case of unbaptized believers raised within a Baptist church (typically youth who make a profession of faith). In the former, open membership is an act of charity and fellowship, whereas in the latter case, the youth would have to be baptized before formally received as members. George Beasley-Murray states the matter plainly thus:

[open membership] is solely for members of other Churches transferring to a Baptist Church. This restricts it to what it was intended to be — an act of Christian charity and fellowship among the Churches, in recognition that other communions are truly Christ’s and as truly Church as Baptists are. But young people confessing their faith and converts without should never question the need for baptism; they should refrain from  … Church membership  … until they have submitted to baptism.

At my church yesterday, I attended the second (of a three-part) baptism class, led by one of our pastors (SM). He rightly pointed out that there is a nexus of concepts of which baptism is inextricably linked with, which he summarized as: belief, (new) birth, baptism, belonging, behaving (hopefully I have this right!). I only wished that this point is stressed more often, as the NT knows nothing of an unbaptized believer (under normal circumstances, the repentant thief on the cross being one obvious exception).

This never fails to baffle me, how some Baptists get worked up in arms over the mode of baptism, but fail to discern fully the meaning of baptism and are therefore, “soft” on professing believers who delay baptism for months or years. Perhaps it is partially (largely ?) the fault of those who are communicating the Gospel, that it is often presented in a shallow and formulaic manner that leads to a reductionistic understanding of what conversion entails. In other words, saying Yes to the Gospel, saying Yes to Jesus means saying Yes to identifying with Him through baptism.

As to the motivation, it is desiring to obey Jesus as Lord and publicly identify with Him and His people, as a visible rite of initiation into the church. Furthermore, I was glad that SM alluded to the experiential aspect of baptism, that it is a means of grace. It is also a “bodily” expression of our faith and an opportunity for the community of believers to tangibly participate in this means of grace as a body: hearing the baptizand’s testimony (salvation story), witnessing the baptismal act and sharing the baptizand’s new life in the Spirit by welcoming him/her with a hug or handshake. It is a beautiful symbol, sign and sacrament of another brother/sister being brought into union with Christ and all the attendant salvific benefits, including the gift of the Spirit, through whom he/she is incorporated into the fellowship of the one Body.

Prolonged delay between conversion and baptism unfortunately weakens the significance of the event as well as diluting the whole matter of discipleship (cf. Matt. 28:19-20).

We come now to the matter of the mode of baptism.

Genuine believers have been baptized by aspersion (sprinkling), affusion (pouring) and immersion/submersion. Maybe my idea of trimodal baptism is not so crazy after all: beleivers should be sprinkled, poured on, and immersed when they get baptized:

Trimodal Baptism
Words Spoken Mode Scripture
 I baptize you in the name of the Father  water is sprinkled/splashed all over the believer  I will sprinkle you with pure water and you will be clean from all your impurities. I will purify you from all your idols. I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes and carefully observe my regulations. (Eze. 36:25-27; NET)
 and in the name of the Son  believer is submerged  Having been buried with him in baptism, you also have been raised with him through your faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead (Col. 2:12; NET)
 and in the name of the Holy Spirit  water is poured over the believer’s head  Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38; NET; cf. Acts 2:17, 33, 38; 10:45-48)

Sailing Through Stormy Seas

As I see it, there are two practical matters that require immediate attention.

With regards to the brother who was sprinkled as a believer, we should recognize his baptism as valid assuming that there is a shared agreement on the meaning of baptism. As such, he should be welcomed as a full-fledged member of the church. (Rom. 15:7)

With regards to unbaptized believers in the church: they  should be encouraged and exhorted to be baptized immediately. There is simply no reason for disobeying and delaying.

The meaning and motivation is more important than the mode. While I think that immersion was the apostolic norm, I do not believe we can incontrovertibly demonstrate from the Scriptures that immersion is always in view. We should not be dogmatic and inflexible.

The ‘simple and spontaneous’ baptisms in the apostolic church should rebuke us for needlessly complicating this simple and significant conversion-initiation rite.

That said, the church as a body needs to reexamine the biblical teaching on baptism and come to a clearer understanding of the meaning of baptism as but one link in the conversion-initiation chain and that perhaps a trimodal administration of baptism does more justice to the rich meaning inherent in conversion-initiation.

I write as one who desires unity in the church and pray that love may prevail; I am certainly NOT trying to stir the pot or make waves.

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Water and Spirit

Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross (eds.), Dimensions of Baptism: Biblical and Theological Studies (JSNT Supplement Series 234; Sheffield Academic Press, 2002)

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free persons, and all were made to drink one Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:13; LEB)

In his article, “Spirit- and Water-Baptism in 1 Corinthians 12.13”, Anthony Cross reviews the arguments of several authors as to the meaning of baptism in this passage. One group of proponents (e.g. George Beasley-Murray) argues that water-baptism is in view, while another group (e.g. James Dunn, Gordon Fee) finds the meaning in Spirit-baptism (i.e. conversion).

After summarizing and critiquing both positions, Cross proposes a mediating position, namely, that “baptism” in 1 Corinthians 12:13 is an example of synecdoche, thus “strongly suggestive that the referent is to both Spirit- and water-baptism and the rest of the conversion-initiation process.” I found his case well-argued and convincing, because as much as I agree with Dunn and Fee that the context fits well with a metaphorical meaning of baptism (specifically, Spirit-baptism), it seems natural that the original audience would have heard echoes of water-baptism as well.

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That They May All Be One

Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross (eds.), Baptism, the New Testament and the Church (JSNT Supplement Series 171; Sheffield Academic Press, 1999)

As I reflect on the issue of baptism in my church, I have repeatedly called for a panoramic, patient and prayerful re-examination of the biblical, historical (ecclesiastical and ecumenical) and theological dimensions of baptism. I have been attempting to do that on my own as a busy professional and parent, but my heart’s desire and burden is for our church to consider the matter together, perhaps in a series of prayer meetings / teaching workshops.

In the volume now before us, I have just finished reading Anthony Cross’ study titled, ‘One Baptism’ (Ephesians 4.5): A Challenge to the Church. I will cite the passage (4:4-6) in question here (ESV):

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

That the immediate and larger context of this passage has to do with unity, should be quite obvious. This of course, makes it that much sadder that the topic of baptism is so divisive.

First of all, as one reads through the New Testament, one is struck that there is no sustained exposition on baptism; rather, the NT writers treat the matter only incidentally. Cross notes that that “there is near universal agreement that the New Testament has very little to say on baptism and that when mentioned it is within the context of discussion of some other subject …”. Indeed, the NT authors assumed baptism as a given and that their readers would be familiar enough with its practice and its meaning.

Secondly, too often we have treated baptism atomistically in isolation. It is now commonplace that baptism is but one component of what scholars are now calling “conversion-initiation” in recognition that salvation is not always punctiliar but rather a process. That is, baptism should be seen in conjunction with hearing the gospel, faith, repentance, reception of the Spirit, and incorporation into Christ and His body, the Church. Indeed, the earliest kerygma included baptism as part of the gospel message.

Thirdly, it follows from this last point, that the New Testament knows nothing of unbaptized believers. In particular, “baptism has been separated from conversion, often effectively making it an optional extra” and resulting in lengthy delays (sometimes several years) between profession of salvation and baptism. Historically, extra-biblical accretions over the first few centuries led to the development of the catechumenate and the widening gap (theologically and practically) between baptism and the conversion complex noted earlier.

Fourth, with respect to conversion-initiation, Cross draws attention to R.E.O. White’s book, The Biblical Doctrine of Initiation, where he asserts that the “only real question concerns the time-sequence of these events, and we are probably complicating the issue unnecessarily when we introduce a time-element where none intrinsically belongs.” This is a caution to us to avoid trying to package our theology in a neat and tidy fashion because when we consider Acts, we find that the order varies:

  • repentance, water-baptism, forgiveness and reception of the Spirit (2:38, 41)
  • believing, water-baptism, laying on of hands and reception of the Spirit (8:12-17)
  • reception of the Spirit, speaking in tongues and water-baptism (10:44-48)
  • believing, water-baptism (16:31-33)
  • believing, water-baptism, laying on of hands, reception of the Spirit, speaking in tongues (19:1-6; cf. 9:17-18, 22:16)

What then is the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:5? Cross argues that “one baptism” is used as a metonymy for “everything implied in the gospel”, that is, “the whole conversion-initiation process by which all believers have entered the body of Christ through the sovereign work of the Spirit.”

In their introductory hermeneutics text, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr.), the authors use the example of infant baptism as a test case and concede that sincere believers who have studied the matter seriously and carefully remain on opposites side of the issue. They state that in this and similar cases, we must be gracious in our disagreement, continue to listen to each other, and avoid division. In other words, as Cross puts it, we must “establish a modus vivendi in which there is a mutual recognition of each others’ convictions and a striving after the possibility of a rapproachment.”

ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei

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Baptism as Barrier?

Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross (eds.), Dimensions of Baptism: Biblical and Theological Studies (JSNT Supplement Series 234; Sheffield Academic Press, 2002)

In this post, I will summarize renowned NT scholar Howard Marshall’s article, The Meaning of the Verb ‘Baptize’ (pp. 8 – 24).

Marshall begins his article by noting the problem of using ‘baptize’ to translate βαπτίζω since it is merely a transliteration /Anglicization of the Greek word. Since βαπτίζω is an intensive form of βαπτω which has the meanings ‘dip, immerse or plunge’, he wonders if we can use one of these words instead of “baptize”.  However, it is not that simple, because “‘to baptize’ in current English usage does not mean simply to dip in water (or even to sprinkle with water) but rather to carry out a specific rite involving such an action with water and with a religious significance.” In other words, we have no other English word to adequately convey the denotation and connotation that baptism / baptize carries.

Furthermore, the term baptism

became a technical one to describe the ceremony of Christian initiation whose central feature was this ritual using water (generally understood to be originally by dipping or immersion), so that the word referred to the ceremony as a whole instead of the mere action with water and could be used to express the ‘spiritual’ or metaphorical action that was associated with it.

That is to say, there is a literal meaning that pertains to the rite of water baptism itself and a metaphorical usage (which nevertheless, still carries overtones of the literal meaning), such as in Rom. 6:3-4.

Marshall asks us to consider Mark 1:8 (Matt. 3:11):

I baptize you
with water, but
he will baptize you
with the Holy Spirit

If we translate the verse with the meaning immerse, we would get:

I immerse you
with water, but
he will immerse you
with the Holy Spirit

Clearly, the use of baptize in the second clause with the meaning of immerse does not make sense, since the Spirit is never represented as a river or body of water in which one could be dipped or immersed. However, “the two clauses are constructed so symmetrically that we must assume that the verb [baptize] is used in the same sense in both clauses.”

Marshall looks to the parallel passage in Matt. 3:11 which has a slight variation (“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”) and after examining OT passages and the relevant apocalyptic literature, he argues for the imagery of “being plunged into a river or lake of fire or of being deluged with a stream of fire pouring down from heaven” in understanding ‘baptism by fire’. If fire can be viewed as a liquid, then what about the Spirit? Marshall cites Isa. 32:15, 44:3-4, Joel 2:28-29 and Eze. 36:25-27 and others to show that the Spirit can and is conceived using liquid imagery.

Furthermore, we find similar uses in the Dead Sea Scrolls, such as the Community Rule: ” … his flesh is cleansed by being sprinkled with cleansing waters and being made holy with the waters of repentance” (1QS 3:9) and 1QH4:26; 15:6-7. Also, in the pseudepigraphical work, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, we read: “And the heavens will be opened upon him to pour out he spirit as a blessing of he Holy Father. And he will pour out the spirit of grace upon you. And you shall be sons in truth.” (Test. Jud. 24:2-3)

When we come to the NT, we also find “liquid expressions” of the Holy Spirit: John 7:38-39, 1 Cor. 12:13 and Acts 2:33; 10:45.

Summing up the evidence marshalled thus far, “the idea of cleansing by the Spirit was familiar in the time of John and that the linking of the Spirit with both fire and water was made.” Thus, Marshall argues that a “broader meaning of the Greek term [βαπτίζω] is certainly possible. While the normal meaning of the verb is certainly that of immersion in water, it also took on the metaphorical meaning of being overwhelmed by something. … It may also have the idea of being drenched in a liquid poured out from above.”

Regarding the two passages often cited to argue for immersion, Rom. 6:4 and Col. 2:12, certainly immersion makes sense in these passages. But even here, there isn’t unanimity. For example, some would argue that Romans 6 has nothing to do with water baptism, while Marshall points out that:

it is important to note that the source of Paul’s language would appear to lie not so much in an interpretation of the rite of immersion as in the historical facts of Christ’s death and resurrection. The theological point which Paul is making is thus not drawn from baptism as such but from the historical fact of what happened to Christ, and hence, it is not tied to a particular mode of baptism. Immersion may afford useful symbolism of burial with Christ, but we do not need to presuppose immersion in order to explain Paul’s terminology any more than in the case of circumcision regarded as an aspect of baptism (Col. 2:11-12).

He also notes that immersion is not suitable symbolism to reflect other aspects of NT baptism and that affusion was also practiced (cf. Titus 3:5-6). In particular, returning to the passage which he began his article with, Mark 1:8, he argues that it makes more sense to understand it as what John meant: “I have drenched [or cleansed/purified] you with water, but he will drench [cleanse/purify] you with the Holy Spirit”. In other words, the verb βαπτίζω “does not so much draw attention to the mode of drenching (sc. by an act of immersion in water or otherwise) as to the fact of the drenching and cleansing which it conveys.”

Therefore, he argues, there is reason to forgo a dogmatic insistence on immersion as the only mode of baptism. He concludes by saying that “It is more than a pity that a number of churches have written into their title deeds the requirement of believers’ baptism by immersion as the condition of membership, and who therefore insist on the rebaptism … even of those who have already undergone believer’s baptism by sprinkling before they may become full members of the fellowship. … It is when we go beyond the clear teaching of Scripture that we begin to raise ecclesiastical barriers.”

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He leads me beside quiet waters

As I ponder the matter further, here are my latest reflections on the “baptismal issue”; would to God we had more wisdom!

From pastor’s perspective:

Since he was baptized (sprinkled) as a teenager subsequent to conversion (and assuming he understood the meaning of baptism at that time), I would say his baptism is valid. However, since he has sheep under his care who have expressed an interest in being baptized, then they would be immersed, since we’re talking about a Baptist church. Therefore, in order to be an example, as an act of humility and obedience and for the unity of the church, perhaps our brother can agree to be “re-baptized”. No doubt, there may be other factors involved that I am not privy to.

From church’s perspective:

We should pray for our dear brother and his family. Ideally, the church as a body should engage in a study of baptism afresh alongside our brother, so we can hear different perspectives and seek to come to a greater understanding, even if in the end there may be some points of disagreement. Furthermore, if the WHAT of baptism is more important than the HOW of baptism, is the church willing to forgo having the the pastor submit to immersion?

All Together Now

In my own personal experience with difference and disagreement in a church situation, I gave my summary of the situation under these four headings:

  1. Loving Each Other
  2. Listening to Each Other
  3. Learning from Each Other
  4. Leaving Each Other

In my particular situation, I felt I had no choice but to leave; in our present situation, if we all focus on points 1-3, then I pray to God we can avoid #4.

In my earlier post, I somewhat facetiously suggested we should adopt tri-modal baptism as a way of cutting through the Gordian knot, so I was pleased to discover a similar view, “Dual Baptism“:

Despite the fact that [John] Bunyan was convinced that baptism should only be administered to people who had made a public profession of faith (he was a Baptist, after all!), he also was convinced that Christian unity, including the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, shouldn’t be prevented over differences on baptism.

Interestingly, a number of contemporary Baptists agree with Bunyan’s approach to Christian unity (cf. John Piper’s evaluation of Grudem’s updated version of Systematic Theology as well as Grudem’s response to Piper).

Clearly, there is room for different views to be held side-by-side for the sake of unity. The reader is advised to read the helpful exchange between Piper and Grudem.

Returning to the blog post where I quoted from above, Luke Geraty’s conclusion bears keeping in mind:

If I really desire church unity, while believing that unity does not mean uniformity, isn’t baptism, which is a secondary issue according to every Evangelical I know, a topic that we can “agree to disagree” on while still remaining in community together?

The entire blog post is worth reading.  Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Further to my previous post on the baptismal issue at our church, I was happy to learn that our Presbyterian brother (and his wife) was baptized (by sprinkling) as a young man and believer – not as an infant. This makes things a lot easier I would think! And both the church leaders and this couple understand that the key reason for submitting to being re-baptized, is for the peace and harmony of the church.

So now the question remains: what are the stumbling blocks to be overcome before our dear brother and sister can agree to this with a clear conscience? What can the church do to help them overcome any remaining hesitations? (Beyond continuing to love them and showing them grace and patience)

As I mentioned previously, although I feel that Baptist position on baptism has the strongest biblical support, it seems the focus is usually on the mode and that a full-bodied articulation of the theological meaning of baptism is somewhat lacking. The classic study by George R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, while still very valuable, is now over 50 years old.

Thankfully, British Baptists have taken the lead (followed by a few North American scholars) on a renewed study of the subject, and a number of important books have resulted from their efforts, including:

Anthony R. Cross, Recovering the Evangelical Sacrament: Baptisma Semper Reformandum (2013)

Anthony R. Cross and Philip E. Thompson (editors), Baptist Sacramentalism (2003)

Anthony R. Cross and Philip E. Thompson (editors), Baptist Sacramentalism 2 (2008)

Stanley K. Fowler, More Than a Symbol: The British Baptist Recovery of Baptismal Sacramentalism (2002)

Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross, Baptism, the New Testament and the Church: Historical and Contemporary Studies in Honour of R.E.O. White (1999)

Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross, Dimensions of Baptism: Biblical and Theological Studies (2002)

From the Presbyterian side, prolific writer Peter Leithart has provided us with a very erudite and stimulating study (essentially his D.Div. thesis at the University of Cambridge under John Milbank), The Priesthood of the Plebs: a Theology of Baptism (2003).

So, despite my earlier resolution to hold off reading anymore books for awhile, I am going to break that resolution and get my feet wet with these books!

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Troubled Waters

When I applied for membership in a church over a decade ago, it seemed that tithing was a sine qua non – which prompted me to undertake a personal study of tithing. I recall how I was accused of being a heretic by one of the elders just because I did not acquiesce to their simplistic and legalistic view of tithing. Despite forwarding my paper (which took a lot of time and effort to research and write) to all the pastors/elders, only one attempted to directly engage with my study (I suspect many did not even bother to read it) but he was more intent on carrying on a diatribe against me instead of engaging in dialogue. They just assumed that the “truth of tithing” was so obvious that they viewed me as obdurate and my paper as obfuscating the “clear teaching of Scripture”.  This issue was such a bone of contention that it was clear that unless I affirmed their statement “I will practice the truth of tithing” on their membership form (which, incidentally, didn’t even include a full statement of faith, other than 3 brief points), I would not be accepted as a member.

Although I had demonstrated that my nuanced understanding of giving under the new covenant embraced and actually extended the obligation of tithing, in the end, sad to say, I felt I had no choice but to quietly leave. In hindsight and retrospect, could I have stayed and sought to find a way to compromise?  Perhaps. But given that the power dynamics of the church leadership, I doubt that I would have had any opportunity to serve there and exercise my gifts, but would be reduced to just a tither and a pew warmer.

In light of my experience, you can imagine the burden I feel for the situation that arose at my present (Baptist) church, whereby a pastor from a Presbyterian ecclesial background is faced with the decision to be “re-baptized” by immersion before he can officially carry on as a pastor of this (Baptist) church. This signals of course that his previous “baptism” by aspersion (sprinkling) is invalid in some way. Obviously, given that it is a Baptist church, I can understand why he has been requested to submit to immersion.

While my personal view is that the evidence favours immersion as the practice that aligns closest to biblical teaching and early church practice (although affusion [pouring] was commonly practiced fairly early on as well), I confess that I have not personally studied baptism as thoroughly as I ought to have. In the past I joked with some of my friends that perhaps tri-modal baptism would go a long way to ending the divisiveness and bloodshed that the issue of baptism has caused; after all, this would nicely align with the Trinitarian formula (“in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”) of Matt. 28:19. Furthermore, each of the 3 modes highlight different realities that baptism signifies: participation in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, incorporation into the body of Christ,  cleansing from sin, receiving the gift of the Spirit, etc. In other words, the rich meaning of baptism cannot be captured by a single mode of administration.

While I am grateful that my church leadership has graciously granted a generous length of time for this brother to study the matter before arriving at his decision, I feel that it would be profitable and proper for the whole church to study this as a body. Some may feel the matter has long been settled, but I would venture to guess that few church members could articulate their view clearly and defend it robustly. In this regard, I am heartened that a number of Baptists in the past decade or so, have instigated a renewed study of baptism (more on this in future posts). Furthermore, the various ecumenical dialogues have shown some promise towards a broader unity, despite further work to be done.

In the case before us, I pray that as a church we would all seek and work for peace and unity. Love and humility must ever be paramount. It would be easy to gossip and pronounce judgment on this dear brother, as if his “invalid” baptism made him a less godly person. Given the recent difficulties and departures, I hope and pray we can see a happy ending to this situation. I am not comfortable with us waiting by idly while he is asked to study the matter in solitaire. Rather, I feel as a body we need to prayerfully and patiently search the Word together with an open mind and open heart to discover and discern the teaching on baptism. It is gratifying that we are extending love and grace towards this brother and his family, but let us show further support by engaging in dialogue with him as we ponder the Word together.

If the church is right to insist on obeying the truth of baptism as Baptists have historically understood and practiced it, then what about other areas of theology or church practice? Are we willing to subject our traditions to the careful scrutiny of God’s Word?

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