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On Theonomy, Part One

Jan 9, 2012

OK, call me a glutton for punishment. Not only is this a really quite large topic, but when all the relevant auxiliary concerns are addressed, we are talking about a book-length discussion. And I want to pull it off in a few short articles? So call me crazy already.

But I have had a number of people asking me to do something on this, so I now rather reluctantly agree. Not because I am unfamiliar with the issues, or think these are not very important themes, but because it really involves so much discussion and careful consideration. My great fear is that I can easily do it all a great injustice in such abbreviated writings.

But let me nonetheless take an initial stab at it all. This piece will basically introduce what theonomy is all about, while subsequent pieces will look at some of the pros and cons of the movement. Here then is a bit of description and background to theonomy.

The movement has various names: Theonomy, Christian Reconstructionism, Dominion Theology, and so on. All the names refer to a group of Protestants who in the past half century or so argued that the civil law given to Israel in the Old Testament is still applicable to all nations today.

The word ‘theonomy’ simply means God’s law, and these folk claim that just as Israel was to submit fully to God’s law in the past, so too should even secular nations today. (Even here, distinctions, clarifications, and critiques can be offered on this, but these will have to wait until further articles.)

The leading figures in this movement include the following men:
Greg Bahnsen (1948-1995)
David Chilton (1951–1997)
Gary DeMar ()
Gary North (1942-)
Rousas J. Rushdoony (1916-2001)

Some of their more important works include:
Bahnsen, Greg,  By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today. Institute for Christian Economics, 1985.
Bahnsen, Greg,  No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics. Institute for Christian Economics, 1991.
Bahnsen, Greg, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 3rd ed. Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977, 1984, 2002.
Chilton, David, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion. Dominion Press, 1985.
DeMar, Gary, ed., The Debate over Christian Reconstruction. Dominion Press, 1988.
DeMar, Gary, God and Government. 3 vols. American Vision, 1982-1986.
DeMar, Gary and Gary North, Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t. Institute for Christian Economics, 1991.
DeMar, Gary and Peter Leithart, The Reduction of Christianity. Dominion Press, 1988.
Gentry, Kenneth, God’s Law in the Modern World. Presbyterian & Reformed, 1993.
Jordan, James, The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23. Institute for Christian Economics, 1984.
North, Gary, Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus. Institute for Christian Economics, 1990.
North, Gary, ed., Theonomy: An Informed Response. Institute for Christian Economics, 1991.
Rushdoony, Rousas J., God’s Plan for Victory. Thoburn Press, 1977.
Rushdoony, Rousas J., The Institutes of Biblical Law. The Craig Press, 1973.
Rushdoony, Rousas J., Law and Liberty. Ross House Books, 1984.
Rushdoony, Rousas J., Law and Society (Vol 2 of The Institutes of Biblical Law). Ross House Books, 1982.
Rushdoony, Rousas J.,  The Nature of the American System. Thoburn Press, 1978.
Rushdoony, Rousas J.,  The Politics of Guilt and Pity. Thoburn Press, 1978.
Rushdoony, Rousas J.,  This Independent Republic: Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American History. Thoburn Press, 1978.
Thoburn, Robert L., The Christian and Politics. Thoburn Press, 1984.
Various authors, Biblical Blueprints Series, 10 vols. Dominion Press, 1986-1988.

While the movement primarily emerged from Presbyterian circles, its influence has extended much wider, with even some charismatic groups eager to embrace theonomy. As can be seen from the brief bibliography above, the heyday of this movement was in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many of its guiding lights have now passed on.

But it still lives on as a quite influential as well as divisive movement. It raises plenty of questions: theological, exegetical, historical, political, social and legal. Indeed, for all ink spilled by its main defenders, the system may still raise as many questions as it answers.

For example: What continues between the Testaments and what discontinues? How much Old Testament law carries over to today? Is the church the same as ancient Israel? What is the relationship between law and grace? Are Gentiles under the law? How does democracy fit into a Christian theocracy? Who decides how these ancient laws apply to very modern and differing circumstances? What about eschatology and the millennium? These are just some of the many crucial questions that must be addressed.

And one must bear in mind that there is a fair amount of differences of opinion within the movement itself. There is not one monolithic voice which speaks for theonomy, but a range of diverse and sometimes conflicting voices. Thus one must be careful as one seeks to explain and delineate just what the theonomists are saying.

Not only has there been division within the movement itself, but it has occasioned much controversy and excited response. Some have called it a Christian heresy, while others, somewhat more sympathetic, see both strengths and weakness in it. For what it is worth, I probably belong to this latter camp.

Some of the works assessing and critiquing the movement include the following:

Books
Barker, William and Robert Godfrey, eds., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique. Zondervan, 1990.
Barron, Bruce, Heaven on Earth? The Social and Political Agenda of Dominion Theology. Zondervan, 1992.
House, H.Wayne and Thomas Ice., Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? An Analysis of Christian Reconstructionism. Multnomah, 1988.

Articles
Clapp, Rodney, “Democracy as Heresy,” Christianity Today, 31:3, February 20 1987, pp. 17-23.
Kline, Meredith, “Comments on an Old-New Error,” Westminster Theological Journal, 41:1, Fall 1978, pp. 172-189.

Various views:
Feinberg, John, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments. Crossway Books, 1988.
Kaiser, Walter, et. al., The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views. Zondervan, 1993.
Smith, Gary Scott, ed., God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government. Presbyterian & Reformed, 1989.
Strickland, Wayne, ed., Five Views on Law and Gospel. Zondervan, 1994.

The concerned reader is advised to read further from all these sources. Obviously reading proponents such as Rushdoony, North and Bahnsen is vital, but so too is looking at some of the other critiques. The movement remains a hotly debated subset on modern American Protestant Christianity, and its influence will not soon disappear.

This article has been very easy indeed to write. What will be much more difficult will be future articles in which I seek to more carefully and comprehensively explain the various theonomist viewpoints, and then in even later articles, seek to weigh up some of the helpful bits and not so helpful bits of this significant movement. So stay tuned.

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18 Responses to On Theonomy, Part One

  • I look forward to your future artlcles on this subject Bill. I generally think this boils down to whether you think there is a gulf between Jews and Christians, Old Testament and New or whether you think Christians and the New Testament naturally flow on from Jews and the Old Testament respectively (maybe there’s a theological term for it?). My personal view is that God has ONE people -those who follow him. The gospel was given to the Gentiles so that we too could be children of God (Acts 15:7). A true jew at the time of Christ would for all intents and purposes be a Christian as they saw the jewish rituals, eg. sacrifices to point forward to Christ’s sacrifice for their sins. Therefore, I believe there was supposed to be a smooth transition into Christianity. And as Christ is the ‘the way, the truth and the life’ and that ‘no man cometh unto the Father but by me’ (John 14:6) modern jews are not saved unless they accept Christ. Consequently, the ceremonial law of Moses was nailed to the cross as it was concerned with looking forward to Christ. Much can be learned about the Gospel by reading about the Jews sanctuary services in the Old Testament.
    Luke Belik

  • Thanks for starting to tackle one of the big ones! This is all the more important given pending US and eventually Australian elections, as Christians wrestle with how exactly to choose which candidate for what reasons.

    But, to quote your quote from your previous blog “Ordered Liberty”, where you quote R J Rushdoony:

    “Conformity to God’s will is real freedom. As Rousas Rushdoony put it in his 1984 collection of essays, Law and Liberty, God’s law is the condition of life. “The condition of a fish’s life, its environment, is water; take a fish out of water, and it dies. The condition of a tree’s life, its health and its environment, is the soil; uproot a tree, and you kill it. It is no act of liberation to take a fish out of water, or a tree out of the ground. Similarly, the condition of a man’s life, the ground of man’s moral, spiritual, and physical health, is the law of God. To take men and societies out of the world of God’s law is to sentence them to a decline, fall, and death. Instead of liberation, it is execution. Man’s liberty is under God’s law, and God’s law is the life-giving air of man and society, the basic condition of their existence.”

    So, when you pose the question above, “Are Gentiles under the law?”, is this not something akin to can fish live outside of the water? God’s laws are not just in relation to so-called spiritual matters, but apply to economics, education, governance, the arts–all of life.

    For me, the appeal of theonomy is that it has given me a comprehensive and sensible overall picture of the Bible, something that 50 previous years of Christian faith (originally Arminian, then Calvinistic a la John Piper) never did.

    For instance, in applying Rushdoony’s and North’s thinking on the matter of whether or not the State should incur grotesque and uncontrollable public debt to finance, among other things, social programs long abandoned by the church, the answer in kernel form comes from the Ten Commandment prohibitions against theft and covetousness. Further, application of the such teachings as those on tithing, the use of the tithe, and the year of jubilee does give the modern Christian something Biblical to say on the subject of economics, rather than mere pietistic withdraw into more heavenly matter.

    Looking forward for more insights and analysis from you, thanks in advance!

    Steve Swartz

  • Thanks for the article Bill, and I trust you are well prepared to tread a stony and thorny path if more articles are to follow!
    I believe in many way the whole issue is something of a distraction from more urgent issues, but as Dominion theology re-emerges in the church as an issue from time to time then it needs to be confronted and examined in the light of the Word.
    It can be seen as a mask to persuade Christians to revert to “the law” (Moses & the 10 Words) in the first instance, and then secondly, as a justification to use the Old Testament history of Israel as a model to engage in militant political action today.
    As you say it is an immense subject, and IMO it bristles with problems – not least the old thorny one of the place of “law” in the Christian life.
    Before you put pen to paper again, may I urge you to read one of several critiques of Dominion theology – written simply, and as always from the pen of this theologically Conservative author – Christ centered.
    It is contained in a back issue of the magazine ‘Searching Together (1988 issue) and is entitled ‘Moses In The Millennium’ by Jon Zens.
    It may sound presumptuous to say that in an sense you need read little else besides this thoroughly biblical appraisal of the whole issue. It is simply superb.
    I’m sure Jon will send you a copy (see his website: http://www.searchingtogether.org) He can be contacted at [email protected]
    Graham Wood, UK

  • Bill, a much repeated mantra of Gary North is: “You cannot fight something with nothing.” In my days as a pre-millennial, dispensationalist, I had nothing substantial to say to the big issues of the day, other than, get as many saved as you can, and hang on for the rapture. I thank God for the mountain of material that the Theonomists have provided to work my way through to answers for the declines in practical wisdom in the culture that surrounds me. I very much welcome your proposed series, and very much welcome the opportunity to thrash this out in an Australian context. Onya!
    Lance A Box

  • Thanks for addressing this topic Bill,

    I hope, if nothing else, your articles dispel the myth that theonomy teaches a man is saved not by grace through faith but by keeping the law. Many Christians, including some pastors, seem still to falsely characterise theonomy this way.

    It is a shame, because it is the law, not as a means of salvation, but as a sign of sanctification that is so neglected in the largely antinomian church today.

    I look forward to reading your future articles.

    Mansel Rogerson

  • This is, indeed an important and difficult area, Bill. I have just written a term paper on this (drawing heavily on the Five Views book of Strickland you mention above — more difficult than necessary to read, I thought) for an OT subject. Before delving into this I had vague views based on my reading of the Bible, but now I have very precise views.

    My perspective is that Bahnsen and crew have little to offer beyond an encouragement to take the OT seriously and to ponder how God’s will applies to the world (and secular government systems in particular). Their view takes seriously neither Christ’s approach to the law (as seen in Matt. 5), nor the Mosaic Law itself (with much disagreement about how to strip out the “ceremonial” and how to apply the punishments of the “civil” components of the Law — components which are never differentiated in the scriptures, I might add). Perhaps Bahnsen and co. represent their position better in their other materials, however I think there’s simply no Biblical support for their position.

    It’s surprising how important this issue is to get right. Witness the article “The Good News of Divorce” by Michael Paget in the latest Briefing, which relies on a confused conflation of OT standards and NT standards to justify a particular position on divorce (perhaps Paget is a Theonomist himself). Paget’s piece demonstrates the danger of Theonomy: he almost completely ignores what Christ has to say on the subject.

    Malcolm Lithgow

  • An awesome undertaking Bill, may God give you insight for a balanced appraisal.
    Great replies to all that have that have done so.
    We are saved by grace, by faith. We are sanctified by a continual action of the Holy Spirit witnessing to our spirit, and our response is obedience to God (the Trinity) and that by way of the law that is written our heart, & so to be holy as He is holy. That law is the revealed law word of God – His character, As Deuteronomy 4:6-8 says ‘what nation is so great ~’.
    This is not a political issue – it is a personal issue with our God, which then becomes a family issue, which then as we live our lives as God intended, we affect the people around us, which then impacts the ‘civil governments’ & magistrates actions. No where is there a call to “militant political action” biblically – although some people may advocate this.
    The Bible has been used out of context, as has Lutheranism, Calvinism, etc and now Theonomy is taking a bashing because people view with rose coloured glasses & think their perspective is the only right one.
    Michael Thompson

  • Dear Bill, I do not wish to confuse the issue of Dominion Theology,but rather seek to clarify it, as my limited, present-day knowledge of the subject is when the term is used when referring to the teachings of C Peter Wagner summarized in his book DOMINION!..How Kingdom Action Can Change The World, which I discovered to be really way off scriptually. I was amazed any Christian could accept what he is teaching,… New Apostolic Reformation, etc… everything non-scriptural or anti-scriptural.
    It didn’t take me long to realize you are speaking of something entirely different & totally unconnected, but I thought I would write & draw your attention to *Dominion Theology* as it is taught to thousands of young people today in USA via “The Call”, “Joel’s Army” & the teachng of “The New Breed”. You may not even wish to publish this comment, but I wanted to tell you of this other non-scriptural teaching, with the same name.
    Sincerely in Christ, June Westbury

  • Thanks June. Yes what I am discussing here is not at all the same as what you mention.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • This will be interesting Bill. Here is one link to a few comments on Dominion Theology by the astute Reggie Kelly who always bares close examination. I always like his site because of the use of Ref tagger where you hover the mouse and up pops the scripture referred to.
    http://the.mysteryofisrael.org/2011/03/31/dominionism/
    Rob Withall

  • Thanks Rob

    The link in the fellow’s opening question does not seem to go anywhere, so I am not exactly sure what he is referring to. But it seems this dominionism is of the sort that June mentions above, which has nothing to do with Christian reconstructionism which I am talking about here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • May I direct readers to http://www.chalcedon.edu for those wishing to delve into theonomy’s historical roots as well as its current relevance and application. Particularly useful is this podcast by R J Rushdoony’s son, Mark, the current president of the Chalcedon Foundation: http://chalcedon.edu/blog/2011/12/19/law-and-liberty-podcast-mark-rushdoony-shares-the-need-for-chalcedons-message/

    Steve Swartz

  • Thanks guys

    Although not directly related, but very much indirectly related at least, I have just penned a two-part article on the biblical understanding of government and the state:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/10/god-government-and-the-state-part-one/

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/10/god-government-and-the-state-part-two/

    This is just one of many major issues that need to be addressed when seeking to assess something like theonomy. As I said, it is a very big subject with many deep and complex layers.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • It needs to be pointed out that each of the “critiques” have responses from the Recon camp – straw men are there to be burned…

    Books
    Barker, William and Robert Godfrey, eds., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique. Zondervan, 1990.

    Answered in
    North, Gary, ed., Theonomy: An Informed Response. Institute for Christian Economics, 1991.

    http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/2112_47e.htm

    Barron, Bruce, Heaven on Earth? The Social and Political Agenda of Dominion Theology. Zondervan, 1992.

    Answered in
    DeMar, Gary and Gary North, Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t. Institute for Christian Economics, 1991.

    http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/2162_47e.htm

    http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/sidefrm2.htm

    House, H.Wayne and Thomas Ice., Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? An Analysis of Christian Reconstructionism. Multnomah, 1988.

    Answered in
    Rushdoony, Rousas J., The Politics of Guilt and Pity. Thoburn Press, 1978.

    http://chalcedon.edu/research/books/politics-of-guilt-and-pity-2/

    http://chalcedon.edu/research/books/

    Phillip Ellery

  • Good on you Bill, and may your endeavours in this series be God-honouring and profitable for His Kingdom.

    A note to start, a great number of the theonomy books you mentioned are freely available for download at http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/sidefrm2.htm
    So those wishing to inform themselves could use it.

    I think the key question when it comes to Theonomy is this: what is the basis for ethics? Is what is right (in all areas of life, not just some – after all God did create everything) derived from man’s word or God’s? Is it to be theonomy or autonomy? I think starting with the question of the Old Testament’s application is too specific a starting point. If we can answer that it is God’s word which must prevail and be followed in every area of life then we are theonomists, if not, then we are autonomous in deciding what is right.

    From this point of agreement (if we do agree) it becomes a matter of rightly discerning what God has said in any given area and following it. Naturally, we may disagree on the application of God’s word to our lives, but from that foundation we can move forward profitably I think.

    As someone who has widely read theonomist writing, I believe much of it to be Scriptural. Some of those authors are better than others (in particular I find North’s manner to be too arrogant and brash at times – although he has a lot of useful things to say) – but if nothing else, I would recommend ‘Theonomy in Christian Ethics’ by Bahnsen to anyone. It is thorough, Biblical, logical, convincing and a very important work. It gets to the crux of the issues Biblically, and it is very difficult to argue with Bahnsen’s conclusions I think.

    I look forward to reading future articles, but for now, I thought I might attempt to throw in a few brief answers to the questions you posed Bill – based on what i’ve read more widely. I’ll leave it to viewers to weigh the merits of them!

    – What continues between the Testaments and what discontinues? a) basically, the NT is the guide on what has been discontinued. Hebrews, for e.g., makes it clear that the sacrifices and priestly duties are now fulfilled in Christ and are no longer to take the form outlined in the OT. The laws are actually still valid in that blood sacrifice is required for forgiveness, but the forshadow of the OT has been fulfilled in Christ. The OT laws still provide insight into Christ’s sacrifice however.

    How much Old Testament law carries over to today? I would say all of it (Matt 5:17) – although it doesn’t necessarily look the same as it did then today – but it continues in principle. The sacrificial laws mentioned already are a good e.g. Other e.g’s might be the food laws: the principle was that God was introducing separation from the ungodly peoples around them and holiness (Lev 20:25-26); while the food laws are no longer directly applicable (Matt 15:11), the principle of separation from ungodliness and holiness in conduct does and is an important aspect of our life of faith (1 Peter 1:16).

    Is the church the same as ancient Israel? In that they are the people of God, yes. Plenty of NT passages make this clear (e.g. Galatians 3:29). Are there discontinuities? Yes. The rejection of the Messiah by Israel and the teaching of the apostle show that the nation of Israel are no longer distinctly identified as God’s people in a national sense (Rom 9, Gal 3:26-29; Romans 11) – and that the Church as God’s people are not identified as a national entity – we are from all tribes and tongues and nations. The nation of Israel was God’s plan for bringing the law and ultimately the Messiah, and now His universal mission of reconciling creation is being fulfilled (Col 1:15-20).

    What is the relationship between law and grace? In short, they are both distinct and different aspects of God’s salvation plan – but completely in harmony together. In a nutshell: the law gives us knowledge of sin, God exercises grace in our salvation to restore us to holiness in life through the power of His Spirit as He originally defines holiness in His word/law. Jut to make it crystal clear – theonomy is not about salvation by law!!!

    Are Gentiles under the law? All outside of Christ are under law in the sense of being under the condemnation of the law – that is the grounds on which they face God’s judgment.

    How does democracy fit into a Christian theocracy? The first question is what is Christian theocracy? If I had to summarise, i’d say something like – Christian theocracy is based on God’s crown rights over all creation. Theocracy is God’s ruling rights over everything – and everything owes him the honour due His name. This includes all forms of human political rule – whatever system of government it may be. All are required to honour Him. It’s an important issue as there are many misconceptions over what reconstructionists mean when it comes to political involvement. Suffice to say, it is not about ‘taking over’ in a model like the muslims offer; it is about recognising God’s crown rights over all creation, and the importance of them being honoured by rulers in authority; by the church in it’s jurisdiction, and by families in theirs – each having a distinct sphere of it’s own which should not be interfered with by others! – so yes, theonomists maintain a separation between church and state!!

    Who decides how these ancient laws apply to very modern and differing circumstances? A difficult question, but basically it comes down to putting in the hours of sound Biblical exegesis. We must each apply God’s laws to our circumstances. As head of my home, I must obey those which speak to my circumstance as best I am able. As leader of a nation, a prime minister must apply God’s word as best they can. It is the job of the Church to faithfully expound God’s word, it is the job of each under God to obey in their circumstances. Needless to say, this is a difficult exercise. We must trust and obey as best we can.

    What about eschatology and the millennium? Eschatology – specifically postmillenialism – should be recognised as distinct from theonomy. While related, it is possible to be a theonomist and not a postmillenialist. Perhaps a series of articles on postmillenialism should follow… ?

    Sorry about the long post!! I look forward to reading future articles here!

    In God’s grace,
    Isaac Overton
    ACT

  • Theonomy ! – What does North have to say…

    “…Ironically, it was with Rushdoony’s writings of the 1960’s that a separate, anti-natural law, Bible-based Protestant social philosophy first began to emerge. Rushdoony did not understand in 1964 the extent to which his view and Van Til’s had broken with the American intellectual and political tradition. That tradition was grounded in natural law and natural rights theory. Rushdoony did not recognize in 1964 what ought to be obvious to any person who has read the tracts and treatises of that Constitutional generation: the American Deists of the second half of the eighteenth century adopted the same strategy of infiltration that the followers of neo-orthodox theologians Karl Barth and Emil Brunner adopted in the twentieth century, namely, importing alien religious and philosophical principles under the cover of language that had long been considered Christian.
    In fact, this process of infiltration has been going on in Christianity since the second century, as Van Til argued throughout his career. The difference by 1770, however, was that the anti-Christians in America were self consciously using these alien Greek and Roman stoic concepts to undermine the religious and especially the judicial foundations of what was then clearly a Christian society. Christians had long invoked natural law philosophy as a support for orthodoxy. The main Framers of Constitutional nationalism – Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, John Adams, and Madison27 – used natural law philosophy as a tool to undermine orthodoxy.

    Historian David Hawke is correct regarding Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776: “He did more than summarize ideas accepted by all thoughtful Americans of the time. He intentionally gave new implications to old terms.”28

    27. Selections from the writings of the last five men comprise Koch’s The American Enlightenment.
    See Adrienne Koch (ed.), The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society (New York: Braziller, 1965).
    28. David Hawke, A Transaction of Free Men: The Birth and Course of the Declaration of Independence (New York: Scribner’s, 1964), p. 3.
    29. Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, The Search of Christian America (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1983). For my critique of this book, see Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), ch. 5.

    http://garynorth.com/philadelphia.pdf Pg 354

    Phillip Ellery

  • Hi Bill,

    It looks like this series was never continued? I’d love to read more of your thoughts and guidance on this topic. I am particularly interested in the work of Dennis Peacocke, e.g. “On the Destiny of Nations”, but I do not yet have a thorough enough understanding of Theology, Church History and Christian thought to know what are the good/bad bits of Theonomy or Dominionism.

    Regards,
    Nick

  • Thanks Nick. As always, life is busy! Hopefully I will still get to some more articles on this. i did start several, but to do it all justice it will take a number of articles with a fair amount of detail. So stay tuned but don’t hold your breath!

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