The Three Forms of Natural Theology for the Post-Reformed Orthodox, and Even Evangelicals

This will be a straightforward post, but I wanted to take a moment to highlight how the Post-Reformed orthodox come to their affirmation of natural theology. It is important to qualify this, though, in the sense that the PRO believe that natural theology is actually a sub-category of special revelation; at least for the Christian, and it is this aspect of natural theology that we will be
philosophersketching with reference to Richard Muller’s development of it.[1]

Here is Richard Muller’s take on natural theology in Post-Reformed orthodox theology; he has been developing quite a bit previous to what I am going to quote, and we will jump in just as he is citing how Francis Turretin offers a mediating way for understanding how it is at an epistemological level that human agents can have a natural knowledge of God.

Thus Turretin can say that the human mind is not a tabula rasa absolutely but only relatively: it does not naturally contain discursive or dianoetic knowledge (cognitio dianoetica), that is, acquired knowledge, but it does contain noesis or pure intellectual apprehension (cognitio insita or cognitio apprehensiva et noetica).

Using this concept of cognitio insita or cognitio intuitiva sive apprehensiva, the Reformed orthodox can argue three basic forms of natural theology, two of them arising immediately and universally in the human mind and one arising as a result of rational examination of others. First, the universal experience of mankind and the institution of religion in every nation of the world indicates a sense of the divine or of divine power (sensus numinis). There is no nation so barbaric, Cicero declared, that it is not persuaded of the existence of God. Second, the human conscience bears witness to a natural law which, Turretin concludes, “necessarily includes a knowledge of God the Lawgiver (cognitio Dei Legislatoris).” Knowledge of God, in other words, arises naturally from the contemplation of created things and by inference from the order and government of things. Third, out of these basic apprehensions of the divine, by means of purely rational investigation, pagan philosophers have developed a philosophical natural theology, an acquired natural theology.[2]

In a nutshell this is how ‘natural theology’ is established for the Post-Reformed orthodox. Indeed, it is this kind of thinking that funds most evangelical thought in general in regard to a belief in a natural possibility for knowledge of God.

Unfortunately these building blocks are often taken as positive and even fundamental things that end up getting integrated into a total theology; inclusive of special revelation. In other words, these inferences about God from nature, in a categorical way, end up getting deployed by the classically Reformed and evangelical Christian in such a way that the God inferred in nature gets synthesized by the active intellect with the God revealed in Scripture and Jesus Christ resulting in the total picture of God (in an ectypal sense). The basic problem to this procedure is that the go-between between the God inferred in nature and the God revealed in Scripture and Jesus Christ is our minds, and our hands. It is left up to us to unite the works of God (inferred from nature) with the person of God revealed in Jesus Christ. At an epistemic level then God is betokened to our behest; this is one reason Karl Barth (in response to Post-Reformed orthodox machinations as well as more close to home for him, the Nazis deployment of their sinister appropriation and form of ‘natural theology’ in a social-Darwinian sense) repudiated natural theology and the analogy of being. I.e. it makes revelation something dependent upon human wits, and leaves no space for God to truly confront us in His Self-revelation and interpreting Word in Jesus Christ and Scripture.

[1] It is also important to highlight that the Post-Reformed Orthodox do believe that there is universal, general natural knowledge of God available, but that apart from Jesus Christ it is only enough knowledge to condemn them and not to save them, nor to give an accurate knowledge of God.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 285-86.

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28 comments

  1. Would it be possible to affirm some form of natural theology while also maintaining that our language about God should be based upon special revelation centered around Christ, with natural theology merely being a tool for discerning the works of God in creation? It does seem pointless to use natural theology to construct a doctrine of God when we already have Christ revealing God to us, but at the same time the implications of Romans 1 seem clear: there is general revelation and therefore some form of natural theology is at least theoretically possible. That being said, I’m in agreement that knowledge of God only comes through faith in Christ, but I would attribute it to sin causing our reason to reject knowledge of God obtained from nature, and not because there is no general revelation.

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  2. I’m not really aware of where the Bible says that natural theology condemns. Of course I realize you are referring to Romans 1. But the context and order reflected therein has man’s unrighteousness preceding and even causing their suppression of the truth. It would be this moral darkness itself which is the reason they are condemned, and also the reason that they worship the creation rather than the Creator. I don’t get from Romans 1 any indication that they ever get to the point that they are able to accurately discern God or His attributes in the created order as it were, since they are born in a state of suppressing the truth worshipping the creation rather than the Creator. Even if these attributes of God in creation were present, which Romans 1 seems to indicate, they remain unknowable without reference to Jesus Christ through whom God’s reality is exegeted and by which after union with Him humanity then has the capacity to develop a theology of nature. But people aren’t ultimately condemned because of their rejection of a brute Creator they are condemned because they love the darkness rather than the light.

    Richard Muller develops the very stages of Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians constructed natural theologies or not, but most of them believed that there was enough knowledge of God latent in nature to condemn unbelieving humanity. I don’t ultimately agree as I just noted.

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  3. Ivan, my response to Hermonta applies to your point as well I think. But I don’t think there is a general revelation of God only a special particular exegesis of who He is in Christ. And then a theology of nature can be done from there. And my contention is because I hold to a doctrine of the primacy of Christ wherein I see creation as proleptically conditioned and always already oriented to and for Christ wherein creation finds its purpose or telos. See Col 1:15ff

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  4. But if the attributes are unknowable, the question remains how does such lack of knowledge condemn? Now it would make sense to say that one is condemned by something present that you didnt decide to do the work to understand or know it.

    So your position would entail that one is with excuse without the Bible etc. While Romans 1, says that the created order is clear is what makes one without excuse not the created order plus finding a Bible etc.

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  5. My position is that Romans 1 says that people are in a state of condemnation and cannot know the true God; that they are in a state of suppressing the truth by their very nature (see Romans 3). Even if they could know God from creation that could neither condemn nor save them, it is their rejection of Christ of course that does that. But I also am not going to limit myself to Romans 1 to develop a theory of revelation or a theological anthropology. Like I noted, John 3 says people love the darkness rather than the light, and without the light, without the self-exegesis of God Jn 1:18 humanity lives in a darkened state where they worship themselves rather than the Creator. And so any. Conception of God that they perceive in creation can only be a self-projection of themselves … so I agree with Feuerbach on that particular critique of things.

    I don’t see how you get to your conclusion about lack of knowledge. They are condemned not because they couldn’t perceive God in creation, but because they reject Christ; and that because they have a darkened heart that suppresses the truth. That’s my position. I reject natural theology. I’ll be writing another post on this soon.

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  6. Romans 1:19-20 – “19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

    The without excuse claim rests on the clarity of general revelation not the rejection of Christ. Whether they ever see a Bible or not, have it explained properly or not, the condemnation stands.

    One also cannot suppress that which one cannot know. For an analogy, think of some scientific position X that is opposed by scientist Y. He thinks that is wrong because of some claim made by scientist Z. However ultimately the claim made by Z and position X are not mutually exclusive, even thought Scientist Y believes that they are. At the end of the day, Scientist X is simply charged with error, not with suppressing the truth.

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  7. Bobby Grow, if I read you correctly it seems that your position and mine are rather close. I guess the only difference is that I do believe that natural revelation can be perceived by nonbelievers, the deal is that they actively refuse to see the light of God in creation. As such, natural revelation can only lead the nonbeliever to the worship of idols.

    Hermonta, the following versus also make it clear that sinful humanity actively reject knowledge of God from creation due to the sinfulness of there own hearts (Bobby Grow’s citation of John 1:18 applies here). As such it is the rejection of knowledge of God and not the lack of knowledge of God which condemns. If I read you correctly, then it seems you’re also failing to make a distinction between natural revelation and natural theology. Natural revelation can be perceived, but only Christians have the proper foundation to develop a natural theology.

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  8. Ivan, I suppose theoretically. But I think people are born in active rejection (homo incurvatus in se), and so in a de facto sense they we all are born idolaters.

    And I would call engagement with nature after knowledge of Christ natural theology but a theology of nature. Like I said I see creation itself proleptically conditioned by Christ in its very Genesis which John 1:1 also makes clear with its obvious allusion to Gen 1:1. Without Christ there is no real knowledge of God and especially no knowledge of God in His acts of creation since creation only finds its reality as it bears witness to its purpose in Jesus Christ. Like David Fergusson says: “the world was created so that Christ might be born.”

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  9. Ivan,
    I am not sure if I agree with you or not. Unbelievers reject what is clear in general revelation that. This is the reason that they are condemned. In their rejection, they do not know that the Bible is true and the Koran is false etc.

    I can agree that unbelievers do bad natural theology. A difference between between us may be that I believe that it is clear what is true and what should be the foundation of natural theology, but the rebellion of the unbeliever is the problem as to why their natural theology is bad.

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  10. Bobby,
    Paul, in Romans 1, is writing post fall to people who are post fall. He grounds the claim of being without excuse in the clarity of the revelation from the created order. There is simply no way that you can get without excuse being because of rejection of Christ instead of the rejection of what is clear in the created order.

    It seems that you reject the view that suppression implies the ability to know. If such was false, then any error of any sort could be labeled suppression. Is that your position?

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  11. You’ll have to read my position in my next post, Hermonta. Which I’m posting now. But you will never ever ever get me to agree to the idea that people are ultimately condemned because of their rejection of God that they should have discerned in nature … that is simply absurd given the whole counsel of Scripture esp. passages like Revelation 20 and John 3. I’m really not sure what you are trying to argue Hermonta, not even the Reformed orthodox want to argue like you are.

    I hold to the Reformed principle of biblical interpretation a la Luther of analogia fidei, the ‘analogy of faith’ where Scripture should interpret Scripture … it seems like you are ignoring that principle.

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  12. Bobby,
    I am fully confessional and take no exceptions to the Westminster Standards.

    Westminster Confession Chapter 1.1 “I. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable;[1] yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation.”

    Knowledge of Jesus is necessary for salvation not condemnation. Salvation is a gracious gift not necessary in any fashion for condemnation to be just. The gospel is not in general revelation, but God is clearly revealed in general revelation and the knowledge there is compatible/consistent with the knowledge of God found in the Bible.

    I believe that Scripture interprets Scripture as well. I think our dispute is over which passage is the clearest because we should interpret the less clear in light of the more clear. There is also the issue of running roughshod over a passage in order to get to a different passage. Romans 1 is simply incompatible with your system.

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  13. No it isn’t, Hermonta. I’ve explained how I approach Romans 1 and you haven’t defeated that yet.

    I repudiate Westminster, so you can refer to it, and I’ll consider it but I’ll reject the metaphysics that stand behind it etc.

    You haven’t yet proven your point theologically and it is naive to argue that there is a straightforward read of Romans 1 such you are presuming to make your argument. Again, not even the developers of WCF would all follow your thinking, some would.

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  14. Bobby,
    Where have you put forward how you handle Paul’s words in Romans 1. Or to put it a different way, is there somewhere where you walk through Romans 1:19-20, in particular, and show how your system makes sense of the claims made there.

    My point about Westminster was simply to refute your claim that the orthodox would not “do what I am doing”. I know you don’t like Westminster. 🙂

    If you would like for me to engage and move to your other post, I can do that as well.

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  15. Yeah, read my other post. And I’ve explained how I deal with Romans 1 in this very thread. And the Post-Reformed orthodox do not all approach this the same way, in fact many of them reject the possibility for natural theology against your position. Read Muller’s series PRRD Vol 1. So some of the orthodox would do what you are doing but many would not and are much closer to the way I think of this. You are over generalizing with reference to the orthodox. The WCF does not give account for all the variety even amongst its own theologians. Again, I’ve already indicated to you how I deal with Romans 1 and my new post elaborates further on what I mean. You have ignored important parts to my treatment of this that I have already noted even in this thread in regard to a doctrine of creation and it being proleptically conditioned by Jesus Christ. You have also presumed that you apparently are just reading the Bible straightforward w/o your own set of metaphysical theological a prioris which is being either naive or disingenuous. You shouldn’t be so triumphalist about how I do or don’t read Romans 1 and how that does or doesn’t comport with my theology. You need to be a bit more self-critical yourself!

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  16. Bobby,

    I understand that you make claims, the issue is do those claims stand up to what is said, and how it is said in Romans 1. Making claims and defending those claims are not the same thing.

    If one was to make the claim that knowledge of God outside of the Bible/Christ is not possible is not compatible with Romans 1. If someone orthodox, in many other ways, attempted to support such, as far as they did, such is incompatible with Westminster.

    Next, I am not claiming to be reading without bias etc. I am claiming that words mean things and that certain claims are simply incompatible with what the Scriptures say no matter how you want to slice it.

    I will now move to the new post.

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  17. Hermonta,

    Please, I’m not going to keep repeating myself. I’ve already explained defended in an inchoate way in this thread how I approach Romans 1. You haven’t even begun to try and deconstruct what I said about a doctrine of creation, about a theological-anthropology, or theological exegesis. So quit acting like you have. I offered a defense I can’t help it if you want to ignore the way I did. But don’t keep commenting and saying that I haven’t when I have you just apparently aren’t capable to respond to what I offered; you’re acting like you’ve defeated my alternative points when you haven’t even tried to defeat them other than continuing to offer me triumphalistic bluster.

    Thankfully WCF is not binding, not even for the so called orthodox (it is a regionally conceive document and not a catholic or ecumenical document by the Reformed orthodox’s own definition in re to the role that confessions play and how they take form and shape). Well you need to do more homework in regard to how Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox theology developed among its thinkers and not cop-out and appeal to the WCF which is to flatten out the tradition the very thing that Richard Muller and others have done so much work to fix.

    Sure words mean something, exactly! But they only mean something within their given context. And my claims are that based upon the inner-logic of Scripture (what allows its authors to make the assertions that they do in their writings), the logic of the incarnation, the Trinity that we must read the words in Romans with that informing theology in mind or none of Scripture holds together (because of the inner-theo-logical suppositions of Scripture).

    So far you haven’t done anything to actually engage though what I have said about theological anthropology, doctrine of creation etc. and so if you want to continue to engage at some sort of meaningful level you will need to do that or quit commenting.

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  18. Bobby,
    What I have stated, is that you have not shown how your system interacts with Paul’s comments in Romans 1:19-20. I understand that you have a lot of underlying positions that lead you to where you are today.

    For example, what I am looking for is something like this. Given your system, when Paul says “quote”, he is meaning X. Then when he says “quote 2”, he is then meaning Y. I have yet to see you engage with the actual text. I have no problem with you engaging the text through the lenses of your system.

    I dont see how I can begin to critique your system until you actual show what it does with the text in order to get to its conclusions.

    My claim from the beginning is that the text is incompatible with your system. Until you engage with the text, how do you wish me to defend my thesis.

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  19. I’ve engaged with the text as much as you, Hermonta. I have told you how I understand suppression working in the text. I have told you how I believe that the way we come to Romans 1 and work from it is with the idea that we are born in a present tense in a state of suppressing the truth because we are unrighteous. And I have told you that because of this we worship the creation rather than the Creator. Which means that from Romans 1 we are not able to know God naturally whatsoever; that we have no access to God and knowing God apart from Christ and the broader context of Romans 1–3 concludes the same thing and makes the same point.

    What you are confusing is 1) the idea that because God’s attributes might be accessible by nature/creation 2) that this ipso facto means that natural man must therefore have access to these attributes in nature. But the text never says that! All the text says is that they are without excuse because that is true. It doesn’t follow that they must have access to those attributes in nature to be held w/o excuse. So you are confusing categories even if we read it in a kind of straightforward way.

    But beyond that what gets very frustrating is when someone like you comes along and plays a double standard! You won’t admit what your bias even is, and you also won’t self-critically identify how that is informing your engagement of the text. Natural theology comes from the philosophers Hermonta, plain and simple. That does not negate its reality per se or tout court. But it has to be established that the theory of causality and epistemology from the philosophers provides univocal correlative explanatory power in regard to our interpretation of Romans 1 without artificially making the text say something else or more than the text is saying given all the other theological background to the language of the text wherein we find meaning for the words and syntax found in Romans 1. So I have been trying to be transparent about the theological background that I see providing the meaning for the text of scripture along with a prima facia reading of the text insofar as that can be done. I just reiterated and elaborated further on that in this comment. And you still haven’t engaged with anything I’ve written. So either you are being disingenuous, you are incapable to respond to my points, or you are severely naive.

    I will ask you one more time to respond to everything I have said now both in re to the material theological points and exegetical points or don’t respond at all. So go back and review what I have already said and what I just said and then respond to it point by point or don’t respond. Otherwise this is a really silly exercise waiting your time and mine.

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  20. Now we might be getting somewhere. (As an aside, it would have been optimal if you actually exegeted the text vs. just talking about it).

    B: “I’ve engaged with the text as much as you, Hermonta. I have told you how I understand suppression working in the text. I have told you how I believe that the way we come to Romans 1 and work from it is with the idea that we are born in a present tense in a state of suppressing the truth because we are unrighteous.”

    No problem with such. One is suppressing the truth or bowing the knee.

    B: “And I have told you that because of this we worship the creation rather than the Creator. Which means that from Romans 1 we are not able to know God naturally whatsoever; that we have no access to God and knowing God apart from Christ and the broader context of Romans 1–3 concludes the same thing and makes the same point.”

    Ability has a wide meaning normally, but an even wider meaning in this context. 1)If we are unable to know God, then how do you understand this phrase: “20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Paul is stating that the reason “so that” people are without excuse is that “the invisible qualities have been clearly seen, being understood”. If man has no ability to do such, then that implies that they have an excuse but the whole point of the statement is to remove the excuse from people.

    Romans 1-3 does not confirm your position.According to Romans 3:8-10, no one knows and no one seeks. I take the point that no one seeks as being the reason that no one knows. It is not the case that the knowledge is not there for the taking, it is instead that no one wants to find God until they are effectually called.

    B: “What you are confusing is 1) the idea that because God’s attributes might be accessible by nature/creation 2) that this ipso facto means that natural man must therefore have access to these attributes in nature. But the text never says that! All the text says is that they are without excuse because that is true. It doesn’t follow that they must have access to those attributes in nature to be held w/o excuse. So you are confusing categories even if we read it in a kind of straightforward way.”

    Paul says that they are inexcusable because it has been clearly shown to them through the created order “what has been made”. Are you simply saying that if Paul deleted the “have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made,” nothing of the argument has been changed? Are people without excuse simply because God has decreed such?

    B: “But beyond that what gets very frustrating is when someone like you comes along and plays a double standard! You won’t admit what your bias even is, and you also won’t self-critically identify how that is informing your engagement of the text. Natural theology comes from the philosophers Hermonta, plain and simple. That does not negate its reality per se or tout court. But it has to be established that the theory of causality and epistemology from the philosophers provides univocal correlative explanatory power in regard to our interpretation of Romans 1 without artificially making the text say something else or more than the text is saying given all the other theological background to the language of the text wherein we find meaning for the words and syntax found in Romans 1. So I have been trying to be transparent about the theological background that I see providing the meaning for the text of scripture along with a prima facia reading of the text insofar as that can be done. I just reiterated and elaborated further on that in this comment. And you still haven’t engaged with anything I’ve written. So either you are being disingenuous, you are incapable to respond to my points, or you are severely naive.”

    My position has been that natural knowledge of God simply has to be assumed to make sense of the text in question. Everyone comes to the text with some philosophy. The only question is does that philosophy stand up under scrutiny. A danger comes about when one pushes “everyone has a philosophy” to the extent that every claim becomes a wax nose. There are some claims that simply cant be made to fit with the text, even accepting that no one is a blank slate.

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  21. You also ignored my very salient point about Lockean tabula rasa, or that we are born ‘blank slates.’ That would need to be the case in order for your point about suppression to hold true, since your argument is premised on the idea that each individual when faced with the attributes of God revealed in nature makes a willful and active choice at that point to go ahead and suppress the truth. I am arguing that according to Scripture (not just the theology that holds that together internally) like I Corinthians 1–4, that without the Spirit the natural man cannot discern spiritual things. Are you honestly attempting to argue that God’s attributes are not spiritual things?? I am thus arguing that Romans 1 is talking about the condition of humanity in general; that we are all born into this state because we are born w/o the Spirit’s convicting and convincing work of who God in Christ is. And unless we have the Spirit we cannot call Jesus Lord (I Cor 12:3), and we most certainly cannot discern who the Lord of creation is, again, w/o the Spirit.

    So now you have this to respond to as well.

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  22. I am about to ban you from my blog, Hermonta! I’ve taken lots of time with this already, and to talk about the text Versus exegesis is semantics.

    Actually the whole point of Romans 1–3 is to demonstrate that w/o Christ people are universally condemned in their sins. Like I noted, which you again conveniently ignored, the concept of natural theology is completely foreign to the text … that comes from the philosophers.

    And yes, absolutely, God does not need people to be w/o excuse to justly condemn them in their sins and unbelief. We are all unaware of God’s holiness and righteousness apart from the Spirit.

    And your position is ludicrous in light of the broader context of Holy Scripture and sound theological consideration. You haven’t demonstrated that you even understand what philosophy you bring to the text. Plus I don’t agree with that. Maybe you want to intrpret Scripture through philosophical categories, which indeed you are, but I am not attempting to do that but instead through a principial commitment to the fact that Jesus alone is God’s exegesis and that apart from that to conceive of God’s attributes from nature etc that you must engage in the heresy of presuming a pure nature abstract from God. And what do you even mean by natural knowledge? you don’t even define your terms and thinly refer to philosophy, exegesis, etc. and then you expect me to do all this work when you give glib anecdotal responses. I can refer to ‘natural knowledge’ but only first as that is qualified by understanding how nature first is related to God by His covenant and that God’s life in Christ for us serves as nature’s inner reality.

    And yes, people are without excuse ultimately because they are without Christ. The logical conclusion to your argument, and the abstract way you are reading Romans 1, is that people, if they didn’t suppress the truth in unrighteousness could conceivable have an excuse before God by playing their natural knowledge of God card at the judgment … which again demonstrates how severely unsound your logic is and why you need to test what you hold indeed by the whole counsel of Scripture and by interrogating the inner-logic of Scripture that makes it go ’round.

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