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Posts Tagged ‘John Owen’


“A Church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation.” A.A. Hodge

I came across this years ago when reading Hodge’s The Confession of Faith, a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Note: he wrote this in a commentary on a confession of faith.

Since I’m currently putting together SS material on the Westminster Standards I saw the red ink underlining and exclamation points in the margin. John Calvin expresses similar sentiments in his chapter on The Power of the Church in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541). I decided to run an experiment. I put it on my FB page, and in a closed group I belong to connected to Calvinism. I was curious if there would be any difference in responses.

On my FB page, the response was overwhelmingly positive. There were a few questions, but no big deal.

In the group, it was overwhelmingly negative. There were a number of misinterpretations of the quote. People were fairly unreasonable. I know, shocking conduct on the internet.

Here is a sampling:

“I disagree. attendance and membership are two different things. …theology is as important as doxology.. we are there to preserve both.. as a group we draw lines in the sand.. as an open group we do not.

“…maybe we should eliminate membership and just gather together without running church like a business. … If you expect the rent/mortgage on your church’s building to be paid, your pastor to be paid, the facility clean and in good repair, and your favorite ministries to be funded, then yeah, church needs to have a business component to it. Some churches take that too far and forget they’re a church, but churches have to run like a business to some degree.”

I also disagree. The elders are responsible to guard the flock, and you can’t keep the wolves out if you just admit members indiscriminately. Membership lists also have a use in determining who is eligible for church discipline. Just because a person sits in the pews doesn’t mean the church has authority to discipline them.

I would not expect a Pentecostal to accept me as a member since I do not accept their core beliefs about how the Spirit works and manifests itself. There should be some basic doctrinal agreement and some kind of pledge to serve to be a member.

“In order to worship in unity you need to agree on some things that aren’t salvation essentials. I don’t doubt the salvation of my Presbyterian brethren even though I doubt the legitimacy of their baptizing infants. They don’t doubt my salvation either but they would view my refusal to baptize my kids before conversion as disobedience to Christ’s command. Baptism is definitely not an essential doctrine but is practically speaking pretty important in fellowship and worship. …Messianic Christians and seventh day Adventists worship on Saturday, and think we’re misinterpreting the New Covenant when we worship on Sunday. They probably don’t doubt our salvation and in many cases we don’t doubt theirs, but it’d be pretty difficult to worship together weekly because they wouldn’t want to gather on our day nor we on theirs.”

“Nobody has to attend our church regularly in order to be saved, nobody has to agree to our church’s confession and member’s covenant to be saved, even baptism is not a requirement in order to be saved. So obviously this statement as it appears is false. But I wonder if it is explained in context in a way that might show it to have a true meaning.

We see an avalanche of erroneous assumptions, worse-case scenarios and oddities marshaled to reject Hodge’s premise.

What does Hodge mean? What doesn’t he mean?

These words begin that paragraph:

“In all Churches a distinction is made between the terms upon which private members are admitted to membership, and the terms upon which office-bearers are admitted to their sacred trusts of teaching and ruling.”

Hodge is writing a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. He believes in the use of Confessions and Creeds. He believes churches should have and use a Confession of Faith. He held to the Westminster Confession.

So, Hodge is NOT arguing that churches shouldn’t have a confession.

Hodge recognizes the distinction between members and officers. Members are held to a higher standard. He is speaking of the Confession, not extra-biblical conditions (keep reading). The Confession must be accepted, and taught, by the leadership of the church.

What the quote is saying, in part, is that holding to (subscription) the Confession (or any confession) should not be a requirement of membership. There are some denominations, wanting to limit doctrinal controversy. I used to be a pastor in the ARP and the membership questions included: “Do you accept the doctrines and principles of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for far as you understand them, as agreeable to and founded on the Word of God?”  A confusing qualifier to be sure. The URC requires membership subscribe to the Three Forms of Membership. I was surprised upon joining the PCA that there was no similar vow. Many wish there was one, but I tend to think there shouldn’t be.

This does not mean that Hodge didn’t think members didn’t have to believe anything. They had to believe anything necessary for saving faith. The Westminster Confession includes things necessary for saving faith, but has far more in there. The additional topics are for our well-being rather than our salvation. We should require faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as God incarnate & part of the Trinity, who died and rose again. We should also require repentance as well. And baptism as included in the Great Commission. In other words, as far as we can tell, comunicate members should be Christians.

The other thing Hodge is (may be) saying is that membership should not bind the conscience in any way not required for salvation. Some church membership vows include abstinence from alcohol, smoking or dancing. These are not requirements for salvation (or sanctification).

In speaking about “church constitutions” Calvin argues in this way:

“So we must rapidly conclude as we argued earlier that, where God is concerned, our consciences are in no way compelled or obligated by any such constitutions. Their aim is to bind our souls before Go and to lay duties upon us, as if the things which they commanded were essential for salvation. Such today are all those constitutions called ‘church constitutions which they say are necessary if God is to be truly honored and served. They are countless in number, and make for equally countless bonds which keep souls imprisoned.”

If you think it wise not to drink alcohol, or dance or have the occasional cigar, you are able and free to make that decision for yourself. What you are not free to do is to bind the conscience of others to the same extra-biblical command. No church is free to so bind the conscience of its members. The doctrine of Christian Freedom needs to be taught in churches so members won’t fight over these matters (like the discussions I’d had as a young Christian with people who hated Christian rock, or secular music). You don’t resolve the argument biblically by binding consciences. “So you won’t fight about a beer with your pizza, we’ll just prohibit drinking altogether.” Too many churches take this very route and sin against God and their members.

Back to Confessions. Church members should know that the church has a confession, and that the teaching of the church will conform to that confession. I cover this in our membership class. I give them a copy of the Westminster Standards.

Some members will already agree with the Confession. That’s great! But I hope that many members are younger Christians. We are not a Reformed refuge where you need the secret password (John Calvin Owen & Newton). I see holding to the Confession as one of the goals of my teaching. I want people to move toward the Confession, understand it better and increasingly affirm it as a summary of Scripture. We can’t demand that as a condition of membership, however. We should never say to a Christian, you can’t be a member here. We may say, this is what we teach. If you are willing to discover more about this great. But if you fight about it, this may not be where your membership should be. Just as we offer Christ’s Table, this is Christ’s church. We may be Presbyterians, but can’t restrict membership to Presbyterians. I want people to grow in & into their faith in my congregation.

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Openness Unhindered is Rosaria Butterfield’s second book. Her first, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, was largely autobiographical and took the Reformed community by storm. Her story of how God worked to turn her life from that of a very liberal, lesbian professor of English and Queer Theory to a conservative, Reformed Christian who is married to a Presbyterian pastor. Her book succeeded in annoying many who are not conservative, Reformed Christians. They made some faulty assumptions, like that she think God makes every Christian a heterosexual. In many ways she was a threat to the narrative of the gay community.

Her second book really isn’t like the first. It covers some same ground as the subtitle indicates: Further Thought of an Unlikely Convert- Sexual Identity- Union with Christ. But how it covers it feels very different to the reader. There are portions that seem more like the section in the first advocating for exclusive psalmody. She’s writing much more like a professor teaching us what she used to believe and how it is incompatible with Christianity.

She steps into the sexual identity debate that is going on in the church. The concept is a “gay Christian” is becoming popular on one hand. And one the other some think that a Christian can’t even struggle with same sex attraction (SSA), confusing temptation with sin itself. This is what much of the first half of the book is about.

In the preface, she explains the title in terms of union with Christ. Paul’s union resulted in his being open and unencumbered about his life and struggles. If we are united in Christ, we can be open and unencumbered about our struggles instead of acting as if all is well though your inner life is filled with chaos.

“Even our struggles, our failures, and our suffering are redemptive in Christ. But there is blood involved. There is a cutting off and a cutting away that redemption demands. Stepping into God’s story means abandoning a deeply held desire to make meaning of our own lives on our own terms based on the preciousness of our own feelings.”

She sets up the method, so to speak, in the preface. She argues for God’s created order as one that includes norms and boundaries for life which includes sexuality and gender. They are not social constructions, but about essence. Many, however, are pragmatists and think these boundaries and norms don’t exist and can be manipulated to please ourselves.  These people deny the authority of Scripture. But there are also some who while affirming the authority of Scripture “unbiblically believe that the struggle is the sin (pp. 7).” They believe that conversion experientially restores all boundaries and norms sooner rather than later.

In other words, Christians can struggle with SSA because they are still sinners. The desires they experience are wrong, but they are not themselves sin. Those desires are not innocuous, but neither are they impossible for a Christian. The Christian, when experiencing them, is to put them to death in the power of the Spirit, as they would any other temptation. Christians can experience SSA just like opposite sex attraction, temptation to greed, revenge and any other sin.

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1

There is a method as she covers conversion, identity, repentance and sexual orientation. She works through these theological categories. At times she brings us back to her story, but this book is more theological than autobiographical. As she notes, life stories, including her own, “are messy, contradictory, and humiliating. (pp. 12)”  She says she had a heterosexual adolescence. The sexual meat market of college threw her for a loop, and she felt out of control and her sexual desires became tangled and confusing. For 6 years she dated men, but fantasized about relationships with women, “especially my friends from my growing lesbian and feminist community base” (pp. 13).

Here for instance she distinguishes between homosexuality and homosociality. The latter is “an abiding and deep comfort afforded in keeping company with your own gender, and finding within your own gender your most important and cherished friendships. (pp. 31-32)” Lines get blurry at times.

She then moves into identity. So often we carve out our identity from the wrong things: vocation, past experiences, social status etc. Today people build theirs on their sexuality. We have a tendency to hold to Sola Experiencia- where our feelings and personal experience shape our identity, forming the lens through which we see life. These, for instance, judge the Scripture instead of Scripture evaluating our experience.

She argues that a homosexual identity is not removed by a heterosexual identity, but by Christ. We are converted to Christ, not heterosexuality (though that is a norm by the created order). A person may never be free from SSA until glorification, but they are to find their identity in Christ, not their desires.

One of the issues I had with the book was some of the terminology she uses for sanctification. She follows Vos’ commentary on the Westminster Confession and using “infuse”. This is idiosyncratic. Protestants typically use imparted because Roman Catholic theology talks of us being infused with grace through the sacraments. She doesn’t say this, but this former-Catholic struggles with the use of the term. Vos and Rosaria are the only Protestants I know that use it. Not sure why.

Because God gives us grace, we are able to say ‘no’ to our desires for sinful things (see Titus 2). In Christ we have been sanctified and are being sanctified. We don’t have to act on our lust, hatred, envy etc.

She ends the chapter discussing shame which leads her into the chapter on repentance. Shame is about being exposed, reveled as dirty, disgusting and disobedient. Shame for past actions refuses to stay in the past. We feel it now afraid people will discover what we did back them. She points us to confession of sin that we may be cleansed of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). She distinguishes this from admission. Confession not only admits our actions were wrong, but also appropriates God’s grace.

In all of this she talks about original sin, which she sees as the great equalizer. We all suffer under it. Sin continues to dwell in us, and produces actual sins. She is highly dependent on the Puritans such as John Owen and Anthony Burgess. Because sin dwells in us, we experience temptation internally. We can either say ‘no’ to it, or ‘yes’ to it and sin.

In the 4th chapter, Sexual Orientation, she gets into theory and the history of sexual orientation. Prior to Freud no one thought in such terms. They thought in terms of behavior: that is a homosexual act. They didn’t think of themselves in terms of identity: I am a homosexual. She argues for this precisely because many Queer theorist and postmodernists argue for this. As a former English professor and Queer theorist she talks about why words matter, building a case against terms like “gay Christian”. This continues in Self-Representation or What Does it Mean to Be Gay?.

While she is very black and white, very theoretical, and sounds dogmatic (not necessarily a bad thing), she isn’t drawing lines in the sand. The next chapter, Conflict, is about her disagreement with other Christians about this. She recognizes that while these terms find their basis in a movement in which she was a mover and shaker, younger people don’t come at it with the same theoretical underpinnings and don’t mean by it what she believes it means. They agree to disagree without consigning one another to the region of hell.

She then moves into the living of the Christian life, focusing on community and hospitality. Her understanding hospitality  “starts with adoption and ends with keeping the Lord’s Day together, because the purpose of our adoption is worship. (pp. 150)” She starts with how community begins, which is important for Christians to remember. Community begins with a group of strangers, who have different ideas, passions and interests. True community is not homogeneous. We have Christ in common, but differ in many ways. Community recognizes that it is dangerous. We are in community with people who are sinners of all kinds. We can get hurt! But the perfect love of God is intended to cast out our fear. Open and unhindered, we share life together even the unpleasant parts of life like grief.

She then talks about how they have practiced hospitality in their neighborhood. I don’t think it would work in mine. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. That just means it is an example, not the only way. It is also shaped by her Covenanter convictions. In some ways it seems similar to her defense of exclusive psalmody in the first book. It all seems a bit too perfect (to this admittedly cynical soul).

She then moves into church membership, and why we should take it seriously. She is standing against the consumer approach to membership. She quotes from G. I. Williamson about how there is no perfect congregation, and no perfect denomination (oh that more people in my denomination would understand that!).

“As a pastor’s wife, I have seen the ugliest side of people when they start to believe that the sins of others in our church are intolerable, or when they pack up and leave instead of receiving the repentance of other, or sticking around long enough to work on reconciliation. The people who leave the church because they think they are too good for it have no idea that hurt that they cause- for the people who love them and miss them, and for the people hurt by the things they said and the things they didn’t say when they broke fellowship.”

This is a good book. It is not as easy to read as her first book. It does get more deeply into some very important ideas, theologically and philosophically. It gives those of us who haven’t read gay theorist a summary of sorts from a former-gay theorist.

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I’ve decided to commit career suicide. Okay, that is a bit extreme. I’ve done a SS class on Revelation. There are just some books of the Bible that should be tackled in a Sunday School setting instead of a sermon series. I couldn’t imagine preaching on Revelation. There are some parts that I haven’t settled on in terms of their original meaning. A Sunday School course allows you to offer up various viewpoints and not necessarily commit to one. I did approach the course with a mix of partial preterism and idealism. I think both are far more helpful than the historicist and futurist views. But some passages just seem to defy all categories.

The Song of Songs is another one of those books that is best done in such a setting but for different reasons. The content is more appropriate for an adult audience. I’m amazed at how anachronistic some approaches to the book are. They despise a more literal approach. I think the book is a series of love poems (not a sex manual or relationship guide). They do have a typological function pointing us to our relationship with Christ, but we must be careful not to eroticize that. It does have plenty of references to sexual activities in veiled fashion. As a part of the canon, it points us to a redeemed, or holy, sexuality. Much of the Scriptures offer warnings about our disordered sexuality. This is largely a re-ordered sexuality. Not perfectly though.

Here is what I’m using:

Song of Songs by Tremper Longman III in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series. This is rated as one of the top commentaries by Keith Mathison and Tim Challies. The opening chapter, which focuses on a history of interpretation, is very helpful in setting the stage for the study.

The Message of the Song of Songs by Tom Gledhill in the Bible Speaks Today series. It also appears on Challies’ and Mathison’s lists. I wasn’t too impressed with the chapter covering introductory matters. It did make some good points about the danger of removing the veil so to speak. People will have to be careful with what they learn and hear lest they plunge themselves into sexual sin by obsessing on something. This is something Mark Driscoll should have paid attention to.

Song of Songs by Dennis Kinlaw in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. I bought the volume for the commentaries on Psalms and Proverbs by VanGemeren and Ross respectively. I have yet to begin reading this. I’d better get on that!

Solomon on Sex by Joseph Dillow. Yes, the Song is not a sex manual but there may be some helpful material in there. I know I liked during my counseling coursework. It has been hidden in notebooks for years and has finally been unearthed. This is out of print and difficult to find. We purchased a photocopied version for our coursework.

Communion with God by John Owen. I read this years ago and remember that he refers to the Song quite a bit. It is not a commentary on the Song. I’ll pretend it functions typologically for my purposes.

Discovering Christ in the Song of Solomon by Don Fortner. Don and I will not agree on much. He uses an allegorical interpretive method, making it about Christ and the Church directly. There is no “original meaning” and then seeing it through the lens of Christ. He jumps right to Jesus. I can tell there is much that is true, but that is not what the text (in my opinion) is saying. There are some statements that I would deem dangerous or controversial. For instance, he takes her statement “I am black and comely” to mean she is both sinner and saint. I find equating black with sin to be troubling. I don’t recall any other portion of Scripture doing this.

Perhaps I’ll be back to update this when I’m done. I can only read so many books to prepare for the lessons without driving myself insane. I read far too many on Revelation (lesson learned!).

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Publishing is an odd thing. Some topics are flooded with titles and other topics are almost impossible to find. When a book like Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? is published you have to take notice because books on this subject are exceedingly rare in this day and age. Think perhaps for any other title on this subject published in the last 50 years? You can think of plenty on the subject of legalism, but its mirror image antinomianism is quite rare.

Mark Jones doesn’t quite lay out the book as some people might hope. That can breed some minor frustration. For instance, he really doesn’t try to define antinomianism, or better the types of antinomianism until the end of the book.

“Antinomianism must not be confused with the etymological meaning of antinomian (i.e., “against the law”). There is some overlap, of course, but the historical debates focused on more specific areas of the Christian life.”

This is not a systematic theology, but a volume on  historical theology. The primary focus on his research is the antinomian movements in Puritan England and in 1640’s New England. The reason is two-fold. First, these were disputes among people laying claim to the Reformed heritage. Second, there is a revived dispute among those laying claim to the Reformed heritage in our day. Most people I would consider to have an antinomian theology deny having such a view, usually based on the etymological meaning of the term. But when you look at the strains of antinomianism you can begin to see more clearly that some who claim they aren’t really are.

Jones works through a variety of topics in which historically antinomians have departed from mainline Reformed thinking and formulations. Jones’ main point though is not that antinomians’ error comes primarily with regard to the law but their Christology. This is similar to how Sinclair Ferguson addressed these twin errors of legalism & antinomianism in lecturing on the Marrow Controversy. The answer to both errors is the gospel in its fulness.

“Discussions and writings on holiness often lack a strong Christological basis and center.”

Part of me is tempted to expand more fully on some of the topics that Jones works through. I may “think” through a few here. But for now I will be content to lay them out very briefly.

Jones begins with the imitation of Christ. Peter notes that Christ, in addition to being our Savior, is an example to us. Much of what is written in the gospels is there for our imitation. Jesus models for us how to live by faith as fully human. Jesus lived in the power of the Spirit as an example to us as well (here Jones is similar to Sinclair Ferguson in his series Who is the Holy Spirit?). The way of holiness, Jones notes, is that is pursued by faith and in the power of the Spirit. Many of the antinomians, as Jones and Packer in his brief but excellent forward assert, limited our activity in sanctification. They essentially make sanctification monergistic like justification is. As a result they talk about Christ not only obeying for us, but in us. They sound like some hyper-Calvinists I’ve talked with who limit the use of our will. Both groups don’t have much room for Philippians 2:12-13 in their theology. There we see God works so I will will and work resulting in obedience. Both God and I will and work: synergism! In other words, Christ does not act immediately but mediately. Jones is careful to guard the difference between Christ’s impretration (redemption accomplished) and impartation (redemption applied). We see here, and elsewhere that antinomians tend to conflate justification and sanctification.

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I’m reading a book on sermons by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on John 4 in preparation for my sermons on that chapter coming up. The book is only 750ish pages. I have plenty of work ahead of me. But some of the sermons are well worth it, like one entitled Spiritual Dullness and Evasive Tactics preached in October, 1966. Think about that for a moment, 1966. Amazing to me how much of what he says fits our contemporary situation.

He begins with noting the essence of Christianity: “we have within us a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” The Christian life is a spiritual life under the power and direction of the Spirit. This great salvation “is to enable us to live in the world and to look forward to the glory that is to come.” This positive beginning shifts as the Dr. begins to lay the smack down. He gets quickly to exposing the sins of his time in England that mirror those of ours here in America.

“We face national prejudices, class prejudices, race prejudices, and so on. There is almost no end to them. What harm they have done in the life of the individual Christian, and what harm they have done in the life of the church throughout the centuries- the things we cling to so tenaciously simply because we have been born like that!”

He was addressing the Jewish-Samaritan prejudice. Later in the sermon he brings us to the problems of Apartheid and the Civil Rights struggle in the U.S. The people in England were denouncing the white South Africans and Americans. He admits, obviously, the sinfulness of racism, but takes this as evasiveness. The woman at the well used this prejudice to evade Jesus, and the Dr.’s contemporaries were using those prejudices in other nations to evade the truth about themselves.

“You see, in denouncing somebody else, you are shielding yourself. While you are denouncing these people or friends in America or somewhere else over this racial problem, you are full of self-righteous indignation. That is very clever, but you are just evading the problem of your own life, the running sore of your soul.”

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Lately I’ve been interacting with a number of people who call themselves “moderate Calvinists”. I’ll be honest, it has been frustrating (for both sides, I’m sure). One reason is a body of literature they have read, that I haven’t, and they point to as authoritative. They usually despise John Owen, and (from my perspective) take comments by scholars (Owen and otherwise) out of context for their arguments.

Moses Amyraut- the original 4-Pointer

They hold to a “hypothetical atonement” instead of a particular atonement. They are similar to the Amyraldian position (they resist this label) in that the atonement is universal in extent, even if only efficient for the elect. They recognize the reality of the elect. So they’ve got that going for them.

One claim I’ve heard from them is that the Canons of Dort do not support the doctrine of limited or particular atonement as espoused by 5-Point Calvinists. (If I’ve misunderstood in the flood of verbiage, I’ll recant.) They see the 5-Points as a modern formulation (yeah, so?), that has no basis in the work of Calvin and the Canons.  I thought I’d look at the Canons (it has been awhile) and see what I find. It is kind of hard to re-read all of Calvin on this topic.

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WTS Bookstore has a 50% off sale on 3 great books on the subject of sanctification. No, you can’t buy your sanctification. But these books will help you as you seek to understand and apply the gospel in the process of sanctification.

From the past, there is Overcoming Sin and Temptation in which Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor edited 3 classic works by John Owen: The Mortification of Sin in Believers, Of Temptation, and Indwelling Sin. If you haven’t read these, what is stopping you. Here are some blurbs:

“Get hold of this volume edited by Kapic and Taylor. See it as an essential matter to read and devour. But prepare yourself for pain, for Owen will take no prisoners. If you want to keep living the humdrum, half-hearted life of faith you currently do, then pass it by.”
– Derek Thomas, Read the full review at Reformation21.

“The greatest Christian writers are those who most powerfully project to spiritual readers the knowledge of God, of ourselves, and of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Among these are Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, and the Puritan John Owen, who ought to be better known than he is. The editors of this volume have worked hard to make Owen’s unrivalled insight into the Christian’s inner war with sin accessible to all, and the result is truly a godsend. Filled with classic devotional theology which, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, needs to be read again and again to be properly grasped, we have in the three treatises presented here a companion for life.”
– J. I. Packer, Professor of Theology, Regent College

“Dr. Lovelace, in his Basic Dynamics course at Gordon-Conwell, made us read On Temptation and On Mortification. And that’s where I discovered John Owen in 1972… I wouldn’t be in the ministry—my life would be a shipwreck—if I hadn’t read that book.”
– Tim Keller, Pastor, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York, NY.

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