Biblical Materials for a Theology of Cultural Diversity

Biblical Materials for a Theology of Cultural Diversity: A Proposal
Frank Chan, Ph.D.
The world is a different place than it was a generation ago. The forces of
postmodernism, postcolonialism, pluralism, multiculturalism and globalization have
created in our collective mindset a greater awareness of the disharmony within the
human race. The church is also affected by these changes, especially as the face of
Christianity gradually becomes less white and more non-white worldwide. Theologians
from a previous era who assumed a more homogeneous world felt no need to address
the fact of diversity, but times have changed. A church that does not know how to
speak intelligently about, say, the existence of multiple perspectives, or the struggles of
a minority culture within a dominant culture, or the polarization of competing peoplegroups within a society, will be ill-equipped to take leadership in the twenty-first century.
It is necessary, then, for theologians in this generation to outline a theology of cultural
diversity, which would help address questions like, “How do we interpret the cultural
diversity in the world and in Christ’s church? Are the many colors harmonious like a
rainbow or fragmented like a shattered stained glass window? Is heterogeneity a
blessing or a curse? Ought cultural differences be celebrated or downplayed? How
ought diversity be best managed?”
While several works have addressed the theology of culture,1 few have focused
specifically on cultural diversity.2 Our goal here is not to offer a full treatise, but to (a)
The most well-known theology of culture is H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1951). See also John R. W. Stott and Robert T. Coote, eds., Down to Earth:
Studies in Christianity and Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) and Robert E. Webber, The Secular
Saint: The Role of the Christian in the Secular World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979).
Among the better attempts are Daniel F. Romero, “The Church’s Struggle with Diversity,”
International Review of Mission 85 (Apr 1996): 189-204; Rose Dowsett, Rainbow Theology: Grace in
gather the main biblical passages and themes with which any theology of cultural
diversity must deal and (b) sketch out a few suggestions as to what such a theology
might say. We see at least nine important ideas.
1. The Cultural Mandate in Genesis 1-2
The theology of cultural diversity, as with any aspect of the theology of
humankind, must begin with the creation of human beings in God’s “image” and
“likeness” (Gen 1:26). Closely associated with the imago dei is what has been called
humanity’s “cultural mandate,” a charge to imitate the Creator by creating civilization. 3
In the biblical worldview, the universal drive to forge and advance human culture is
rooted in God’s command to rule over and subdue the earth (Gen 1:26, 28; cf. Ps 8:48), to work and take care of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:15)4 and to name the animals
(Gen 2:19-20).5 In other words, Christianity interprets the innate impulse within peoplegroups to express themselves distinctively in art and architecture, music and theater,
science and engineering, agriculture and industry, philosophy and religion, education
and medicine, sports and entertainment, law and government, as a natural extension of
Diversity. The Blessing and the Challenge of a Global Church Family” (Global Connections Occasional
Paper no. 18), Evangel 22, no. 3 (Autumn 2004); J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A
Biblical Theology of Race (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
Webber, The Secular Saint, 36-38.
The word “culture” comes from the Latin colore, which means to “till” or “cultivate.” The directive
to work the garden in Gen 2:15 is therefore particularly relevant to the notion of a cultural mandate for
humankind. As Webber puts it, “culture is the result of ‘tilling’ God’s creation” (Secular Saint, 18).
5 Leonard Verduin, Somewhat Less Than God: The Biblical View of Man (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1970), 31-32, sees within Gen 2:15,19-20 the tendencies of advanced cultures of the world
today to domesticate plants and animals.
the human spirit’s likeness to God’s.6 Christianity says the reason human beings tend
to impose order over the chaos they see is because God desired to bring his creation
order to the primordial chaos (Gen 1). In short, when we act as cultural beings, we
imitate God.
But what does humanity’s “cultural mandate” mean for our theology of cultural
diversity? We see three implications. First, God’s declaration that his creation of
humankind was “very good” (Gen 1:31) indicates that he takes pleasure in empowering
human beings to express themselves culturally. As an architect delights in seeing his
toddler stack toy blocks, so also our heavenly Father delights in seeing human beings in
his own image rule over creation.7
Second, since God chose not to specify from which among the permissible trees
to eat (Gen 2:16-17), nor to dictate what names to give the animals (Gen 2:19), he
obviously granted Adam and his offspring a great deal of flexibility in exercising their
“dominion.” They were free to “subdue the earth” as they saw fit. Is it not reasonable to
assume that within this freedom was the built-in capacity for variation? As the human
race grew, diverse choices over time would eventually generate different ways of
solving problems, different forms of work and play, different approaches to the arts and
sciences, etc. Given this dynamic, is it likely that human culture would have remained
homogeneous forever? Or would cultural diversity have arisen on its own (considered
Some of cultural activities we mentioned involve the direct subjugation of the earth’s natural
resources— “working the garden” (Gen 2:15): science, engineering, architecture, agriculture, medicine,
etc. Other cultural activities involve the exercise of the intellect, which sets human beings apart from
lower creatures and epitomizes their “dominion” (Gen 1:28)-- art, music, theatre, sports, entertainment,
philosophy, religion, education, government, etc.
In this sense, even “secular” cultural achievements glorify God. Even if Donald Trump, Kofi
Anon and Kobe Bryant were not to recognize God, their skyscraper building, power brokering and slamdunking would reflect, however dimly, the image of God stamped within them.
apart from the fragmenting effects of, say, the Tower of Babel incident), as a matter of
course? We are inclined to think the latter—diversification was inevitable.
Third, the cultural mandate means that human culture by itself is neither evil nor
ethically neutral—it is good. And given the freedom the cultural mandate presupposes,
cultural diversity by itself would appear to be neither evil nor ethically neutral—it too is
good. If, as we have said, God delights in human culture, he must delight in its
diversity.8 He enjoys the many “colors” of the human race and the many “flavors” of
human culture.
2. The Cultural Impact of the Fall in Genesis 3-4
Adam’s sin and its aftermath described in Gen 3-4 offers two main implications
for our theology of cultural diversity. First, included among the aspects of Adam’s being
that were affected by the fall is his production as a cultural being.9 Since the curse on
Adam primarily addresses his gardening work on the ground (Gen 3:17), the very
sphere in which his cultural responsibility is to be exercised (Gen 2:15), the implication
is that humankind’s cultural expressions, though ordained of God, are tainted with sin.10
Romero, “Church’s Struggle,” 189, calls diversity “a gift from God.” Take, for example, the
familial piety valued in Asian culture versus the rugged individualism valued in Western culture. Does
God favor one tendency as more inherently “Christian” over the other? Did one arise because human sin
was more active in it than in the other? No, these cultural expressions arose though the natural course of
human cultural differentiation. Each is equally as corruptible and redeemable as the other. We believe
God delights equally in both.
Other aspects include Adam’s physical life (Gen 2:7) and social life (Gen 2:18), which were
each directly affected by sin (physical death: Gen 3:19, 22; cf. 2:17; social division: 3:12,16).
10 The Lausanne Covenant (1974) puts it this way: “Because man is God’s creature, some of his
culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because he is fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is
demonic. The gospel does not presuppose the superiority of any culture according to its own criteria of
truth and righteousness, and insists on moral absolutes in every culture” (Clause Ten).
As Webber puts it, “In the garden man’s cultural activity would have been dependently
creative. . . But man’s assertion of autonomy, his break from God, put him a position
where he became independently creative.”11 Second, the effect of sin on culture
appears immediately in Gen 4, where the descendants of Cain in exile develop
agriculture (4:20), the arts (4:21), craftsmanship (4:22) and possibly law (4:23-24).
However, in the perspective of the author of Genesis, the city culture produced by the
line of Cain is ungodly, as it is presented in contrast to the godly line of Seth (4:26), the
replacement of Cain’s slain brother.12
To summarize, the perspective of Gen 1-4 is that human culture is by itself good,
but it is also fallen and subject to corruption. Just as God delights in every unique
individual he created, yet grieves over his or her sin, so also God delights in the
distinctives of Anglo culture, African-American culture, Latino culture, Asian culture, and
Native-American culture, yet grieves over their distinctive forms of sin.
3. The Unity of Mankind in the Table of the Nations in Genesis 10
The genealogical list of seventy people-groups in Gen 10 according to the three
sons of Noah offers an important perspective on the diversity of humanity. Though
much in the chapter remains enigmatic, its one central theological point is clear: “all
Secular Saint, 40. It is not difficult to find “social sin,” sin embedded within the fabric of a
society, within every cultural group in the world: greed and materialism in North America, the
mistreatment of women in fundamentalist Islam, the abortion culture in China, etc.
Note the vengeful spirit of Lamach in Gen 4:22-23. Also note that Cain’s city is in the “east”
(Gen 4:17), which in the early chapters of Genesis functions as a place of ruin (Gen 3:24; 11:4; 13:11).
See John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 134. Further,
Cain’s line ends without a trace and presumably perishes in the Flood (cf. Jude 11), whereas Seth’s godly
line leads to Noah (Gen 5:32). For more on the contrast between the line of Cain and the line of Seth,
see Sailhamer, Pentateuch, 136.
mankind known to Israel is descended from a single stock. All men are sons of Noah as
well as sons of Adam.”13 In contrast to, say, Egyptian mythology, in which the
Egyptians saw themselves alone as men and everyone one else as descended from the
enemies of the gods, the biblical worldview holds that all racial and ethnic groups share
equally in the image of God.14 This affirms an essential unity amidst the diversity of
humankind and speaks against all thought of racial and cultural superiority.
4. The Impact of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 on Diversity
Crucial to one’s theology of diversity is one’s approach to the Tower of Babel
incident in Gen 11. Interpreters have typically viewed the linguistic diversity and the
geographical migrations resulting from Babel as an expression of God’s wrath. Such an
approach assumes that God intended humankind to be homogeneous and that diversity
should be lamented rather than celebrated because it represents God’s judgment on the
builders’ sin of pride (“let us make a name for ourselves,” v. 4).
But is this the only way to read the narrative? Some interpreters have suggested
that the sin God judged was not pride but disobedience to his command in Gen 1:28 to
“fill the earth” (“let us not be scattered over the face of the whole earth,” v. 4). 15 If this is
the case, then God’s confounding of human language and geographical scattering need
not be viewed as an evil that God inflicted as retributive punishment. Rather, it may be
Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1987), 215.
Hays, From Every People, 59.
Note the Babel account ends declaring that the Lord “scattered them all over the earth” twice
(v. 8, v. 9). Perhaps this emphasis is meant to highlight the echo of Gen 1:28.
viewed as God’s benevolent act of correction,16 to keep humankind from remaining in
the one location at Babel.17 This proposed reading might find confirmation in the fact
that there is no mention of God’s wrath anywhere in Gen 11. Nor is there any indication
that God will eliminate language differences or national boundaries in the eschaton (Rev
7:9; 21:24-26), which would be expected had God imposed linguistic diversity and
geographical dispersion as a curse. This alternative reading of Gen 11 has one
important implication: God is behind ethnic and cultural diversity, not opposed to it,
since he is the one who set such diversity in motion.
5. The Fact of Diversity Within the People of Israel in Exodus 12
A theology of cultural diversity must also draw insight from the ethnic diversity
within the people of Israel. Contrary to popular belief, Israel was never an ethnically
homogeneous group, nor was its covenant of redemption based on physical descent.
Commentators have long recognized that group that left Egypt during the Exodus
contained “a mixed crowd” (Exod 12:38 NRSV). Usage suggests these people were of
foreign descent (non-Israelites).18 Hays believes the “mixed crowd” from Egypt included
Cushites (whom he shows to be black Africans), in light of Egyptian records and Old
Testament indications that the Cushites played a role in the life of Israel later. 19
16 Though Sailhamer, Pentateuch, 136, focuses on the holy land rather of the entire earth, his
comment about God’s response to Babel is similar to our reading of Gen 11: “God, who saw that their
plans would succeed, moved to rescue them from those very plans and return them to the land and the
blessing that awaited there” (italics mine).
Perhaps the apostle Paul hints at this idea in his Mars Hill speech: “From one man he made
every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them
and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26).
The Hebrew word ‘ereb (“mixed”) appears also in Neh 13:3; Jer 25:20,24; 50:37.
From Every People, 67-68 (see also pp. 34-39). Literary sources from Egypt‘s 18th and 19th
Dynasties (c.1650-1200BC) indicate that Cush and Syria-Palestine were under Egyptian control, which
We should also note that the “mixed crowd” did not merely “tag along,” but
participated fully in the religious life of Israel (Exod 12:43,48-49).20 Thus, Israel’s
covenant was inclusive, extending to foreigners and aliens, because the terms for
inclusion were not based on race or ethnicity, but on one’s relationship to Yahweh. But
Israel’s covenant was not merely “colorblind”—it was also “mindful of color,” especially
when it came to protecting the rights of these aliens and foreigners, who made up a
minority culture in Israel.21 A theology of cultural diversity might seek to draw parallels
for the church’s need to be “colorblind” when it comes to matters of salvation, but
“mindful of color” when it comes to sheltering victims of racial or ethnic unfairness.
6. Jesus’ Inclusiveness Towards Samaritans
Perhaps the most important materials from the gospels for a theology of cultural
diversity concern the Samaritans. Though the origin of the Samaritans is not entirely
clear, there is clearly a racial-ethnic component to the Jewish hostility toward them
during the time of Jesus, in addition to the religious.22 Witherington, reflecting on the
Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37), likens the relationship to that between
enabled foreigners from these lands to be living in Egypt. Moses married a black African Cushite woman
(Num 12:1) and black African Cushites served militarily in the armies of Israel 2 Sam 18:19-33; 2 Chron
Other passages that indicate that aliens and foreigners took part in Israel’s religious life include
Exod 20:10; 23:12; Lev 16:29; 17:8,10; 20:2; 22:18; 24:16; Num 9:14; 15:14-16, 29-30.
See Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:33-34; 23:22; 24:22; Deut 1:16; 10:18; 24:14,19,20-21; 26:12-13;
22 Traditionally, the Samaritans are believed to have originated through the intermarriage of
foreign settlers with Israelites after the fall of Samaria in 722 BC (see 2 Kgs 17:25,33). For a description
of Jewish-Samaritan violence in the first century, see Hays, From Every People, 166.
“Whites and Blacks in America, even within the church.”23 This is why Jesus’
welcoming, inclusive attitude towards Samaritans sets such a timely example for the
church today. Despite pressure from his own people, Jesus chose not to separate but
to reach out to the Samaritan woman and her community (Jn 4:9, 39-40). Despite some
of their theological errors, Jesus did not bar the Samaritans from God’s salvation, as
many Jews no doubt would have (Jn 4:22,41; cf. Acts 8:14-17). For Jesus, the
despised Samaritans were worthy of receiving mercy (Lk 9:52-54) and healing (Lk
For centuries, interpreters allegorized parables and assumed the Good
Samaritan character to be a veiled reference to Jesus. While allegory is not always a
wise approach to biblical interpretation, there is one sense in which this identification is
entirely appropriate: both Jesus and the Good Samaritan modeled racial equality (Lk
10:37)—as Hays puts it, not just thinking racial equality, but doing racial equality.24 Any
theology of cultural diversity must grapple with the call to racial reconciliation implicit in
Jesus’ bridge-building approach to the Jewish-Samaritan conflict.
7. The Global Scope of the Gospel and the Missionary Character of the Church
A theology of cultural diversity should also draw from biblical material that
conveys the global scope of the gospel. Perhaps Gal 3:8 is the key verse, which states
that the gospel was first preached to Abraham in the promise that “all nations” would be
blessed through him (Gen 12:3). From beginning to end, across both testaments, this
23 Ben Witherington, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,
1994) 195.
From Every People, 172.
theme is reiterated: God’s blessing of redemption expands forever outward—from
Abraham, to Israel, to all nations.25
It follows that the church should partake of the same universal character of the
gospel that gave it birth (cf. Matt 28:19-20).26 Christians have been confessing the
church as “catholic” (i.e. universal) in the Nicene Creed since the fourth century, but it is
only in the last half-century or so that theologians have grasped the full implications of
this ethnically and culturally. Because the gospel is universal, it must become
contextualized to each culture it encounters. And because the church is universal, it
must become progressively more diverse as it expands and embraces new cultures.27
Cultural diversity therefore cannot and must not be avoided if a gospel-centered church
is to be faithful to its true nature.
The Jerusalem church’s expansion from Hebraic Jewish culture into Grecian
Jewish culture in Acts 6:1-6 shows that an energized local church in a cosmopolitan
area will inevitably take on greater diversity as it grows (and, perhaps with it, greater
internal conflict). An insulated, homogeneous Christianity that is not crossing any
cultural barriers will probably be free of conflict, but it will probably not be dynamic or
25 A quick sketch of this theme will suffice here: Both the psalms and the prophets envisioned
joint worship among all the peoples of the world (Ps 67:1-7; 117:1; Isa 2:1-4; 11:10), which the apostle
Paul saw as fulfilled in his ministry to the Gentiles (Rom 15:8-12). Jesus used universal terms to speak of
God’s fellowship with humanity (Matt 8:11; Mk 11:17). The book of Acts plots the progress of the gospel
through several geographical expansions to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Accordingly, the final
vision of the people of God in the New Jerusalem has an international flavor (Rev 22:1-2). For a fuller
treatment of God’s mission to the nations throughout Scripture, see George W. Peters, A Biblical
Theology of Missions (Chicago: Moody, 1972), 83-156.
26 For a good discussion of the catholicity of the church, see Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit:
Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (San Francisc: Harper, 1992), 337-45.
For more on this “missionary” nature of the church, see Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the
Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 27-44.
growing either. Cultural diversity, then, though uncomfortable at times, may be a
necessary by-product of a healthy and vital church.28
8. New Testament Examples of Cultural Alertness and Sensitivity
A theology of cultural diversity should also draw insight from New Testament
leaders who display mature cultural alertness and sensitivity. 29 For example, in the
classic examples of “contextualization” the apostles show that they understood the
cultural conventions of their target audience and adapted their messages accordingly.
John’s description of Christ as God’s “Word” (John 1:1) was a brilliant accommodation
to the “logos” concept of Greek Stoic philosophy. Similarly, Paul’s use of “in him we live
and move and have our being” in his Mars Hill speech in Athens (Acts 17:28) was an
ingenious accommodation to the Greek poets.
Further, the apostles were often alert to cultural dynamics when mediating
conflict. For example, the Twelve made sure the seven Jewish men chosen to care for
the neglected Grecian Jews in Jerusalem all had Greek names (i.e. they were culturally
similar to the widows they served) (Acts 6:5). In a similar way, when the apostles
granted freedom to Gentiles from the necessity of circumcision, they showed admirable
sensitivity to Jewish believers by advising the Gentiles in the same letter to abstain from
other practices offensive to the Jewish mind (Acts 15:19-20).30 Likewise, Paul gave due
Although James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Trinity
International Press, 1990), xix, is speaking more about theological diversity than cultural diversity, his
statement is still well taken: “I have come to see that . . . without sufficient diversity Christian unity will be
[heretically] narrow, squeezing out what is also the life of the Spirit. . . “
29 The instances cited below are examples of sensitivity to both Greek culture (or Hellenistic
Jewish culture) and Jewish culture equally.
Commentators have noted the similarities between the four prohibitions in Acts 15:20 and what
is known in Judaism as the seven “Noachide Laws,” laws that “righteous Gentiles” are asked to observe
attention to the culturally based convictions of the weak brother in Rome (probably
Jewish) by advising the stronger brother (probably Gentile) to refrain from eating meat
(a stumbling block to the weak brother; Rom 14:21), even though he was morally free to
eat it (Rom 14:6-7,14).31
In other words, the bicultural situation of the early church (Jewish and Greek)
offers a valuable parallel to today’s multicultural church. A theology of cultural diversity
would call upon today’s church leaders to imitate the apostles’ belief that it is worth
paying attention to the cultural values and convictions in the body of believers.
9. The Church’s Call to Unity Among its Diverse Members
Finally, a theology of cultural diversity must give serious weight to passages that
command church unity among its diverse members.32 Although there are calls to
humility (Phil 2:1-4), love (Gal 5:14) and mutual submission (Eph 5:21), our focus must
be on passages that target areas of conflict between believers from different cultural
backgrounds, especially, once again, between Jewish and Gentile culture. Ephesians 2
interprets Christ’s death as having cultural significance:33 at the cross Christ put to
For more on this, see David H. Stern, Messianic Jewish Manifesto (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New
Testament Publications, 1988), 154-57. If this is a true connection, then the abstentions requested of
Gentiles by the Jerusalem Council were not pandering concessions to the Jewish community, but a
respectful and culturally appropriate accommodation to the established ways of Judaism.
31 James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (Dallas: Word, 1988), 834, sums up the matter this way:
“Basic too is the recognition that liberty means diversity, that Christian liberty is a spectrum embracing a
range of options, not all of which can be held by a single person, but all of which may be held within a
Christian congregation without destroying its unity. . . Unless there is acceptance along that spectrum of
the different possibilities with that spectrum, there can be no real liberty.”
32 Although the head-body metaphor in 1 Cor 12 refers primarily to the diversity of spiritual gifting,
there is real applicability to the issue of cultural diversity, especially since Paul reiterates the unity of Jew
and Greek in v. 13. In this section we will discuss primarily Eph 2 and Gal 3, but a theology of cultural
diversity should also draw from 1 Cor 12.
As the fall had cultural consequences (Gen 3:17), so also the cross has cultural consequences.
death the hostility between Jew and Gentile, so as to create to “one new man” (vv. 1416). Contrary to the way v. 15 is often read, Christ’s reconciliation does not come at the
expense of the Jewish way of life; he did not abolish the Torah for the sake of peace
between Jew and Gentile (cf. Matt 5:17). Rather, Christ abolished only the divisiveness
of the Torah, the law as a focal point for feelings of superiority or disdain (cf. Rom 2:1;
14:3).34 In other words, in biblical ecclesiology, no cultural barrier should be the cause
for division in the body of Christ.
Paul says something similar in Gal 3:28. Because justification is by faith alone
(Gal 2:15), and no one attains greater status in the kingdom because of Torah
observance (Gal 2:11-14), Paul is bold to declare that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor
Greek” (Gal 3:28). In other words, our unity in Christ should never be negated by
cultural differences. Commentators frequently point out that Gal 3:28 does not
obliterate cultural differences within the body of Christ, any more than it obliterates
socioeconomic or sexual differences (“neither slave nor free, male nor female”). Jews
remain Jews, the seed of Abraham and heirs of Abraham’s promise. Gentiles remain
Gentiles, but by faith attain the same status as Jews (Gal 3:14,29). Again, cultural
diversity is preserved in the midst of an overarching unity.
The theology of cultural diversity we envision would draw from both Old
Testament and New Testament. It would learn from the diversity of both Israel and the
Marcus Barth, Ephesians 1-3 (Anchor Bible 34A; new York: Doubleday, 1974), 290. The
thought in Eph 2:17-19 is that Gentiles have been ingrafted with the Jews as “fellow citizens” in God’s
kingdom. Paul’s language presupposes that the Jewish community, way of life and covenant with God
early church. It would consider the creation of culture to be a divine calling, but would
also acknowledge culture’s fallen nature. It would affirm God’s delight in cultural
diversity. It would recognize God’s demand for church unity in the midst of diversity. It
would denounce racism and ethnic isolationism. It would promote cultural sensitivity
and racial reconciliation. Not all would agree with the biblical passages we chose or
interpretations we took. Nevertheless, we hope they offer a good starting point for
further reflection and discussion.
continues (Barth, Ephesians 1-3, 269). In this instance, no culture needed to be sacrificed as a way of
eliminating conflict.
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