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The Trinity

Note that the Christadelphians not not believe in the Trinity.
This article explains why that is!

Part 1

The vast majority of Christians believe that God is composed of three persons, all co-equal and co-eternal. This is considered to be so basic to Christianity that any who deny this doctrine are by definition not Christian. For example, one website says of the Trinity: “Belief in it defines a Christian. It is almost universally held in Trinitarian Christianity, that denial of the Trinity is a renunciation of Christianity and salvation”.

On the other hand some recognise that the earliest Christians knew nothing of the doctrine. In outlining the development of the doctrine of the Trinity since New Testament times, William Rusch, an American Christian theologian, writes in his book The Trinitarian Controversy that some: “have seen the developments [of the doctrine of the Trinity] traced in this volume as a capitulation of the biblical revelation to a foreign system from which Christianity has still not yet escaped.’ (W.Rusch, p.27; Fortress Press Philadelphia, 1980 -italics added).

So we clearly need to have an impartial look into this basic belief. Is it, to use Rusch’s words, “biblical revelation” or an imported “foreign system”? Let’s start by defining the doctrine of the Trinity as outlined in church creeds today. The first attempt to formally define it was in the year 325, at the Council of Nicea, nearly 300 years after Christianity was first preached. For our purpose the relevant points of this Nicene Creed are:

“We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the onlybegotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made … And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.”
  • About 200 years later the views were elaborated in the Athanasian Creed.

This is very long and repetitive, but here is a sample of its main teaching: “We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity; neither confounding the persons; nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father: another of the Son: another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one: the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal ... The Father is eternal: the Son eternal: the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet there are not three eternals; but one eternal”.

The doctrine of the Trinity – undisputed facts

In considering the Trinitarian doctrine it is helpful to first establish some indisputable facts.

1) It is not taught in the Bible

It may surprise you to learn that it has always been recognised that none of thesignificant phrases in either of these creeds, or even the ideas they express, canbe found anywhere in the Bible, as the following quotations show, all of whichare from avowed Christians:

  • John Milton (author of Paradise Lost, 1608–1674): “For my part I adhereto the Holy Scriptures alone, I follow no other heresy or sect. If, therefore,the Father be the God of Christ, and the same be our God, and if there benone other God but one, there can be no God beside the Father.” (Quotedby H. Stannus: A history of the Trinity in the early Church. Christian LifePublishing, London). Commenting on this another writer says: “JohnLocke and Isaac Newton, with Milton the three greatest names of theperiod (c.1650), could not find Trinitarianism in the Bible”. (ChristopherMill: Milton and the English Revelation; pp.286, 296).
  • George Smallridge (Bishop of Bristol, 1663–1710): “It must be owned, thatthe doctrine of the Trinity as it is proposed in our Articles, our Liturgy, ourCreeds, is not in so many words taught us in the Holy Scriptures. What weprofess in our prayers we nowhere read in Scripture, that the one God, theone Lord, is not only one person, but three persons in one substance.There is no such text as this, ‘That the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity inUnity is to be worshipped’. No one of the inspired writers hath expresslyaffirmed, that in the Trinity none is afore or after other, none is greater orless than another.” (Sixty Sermons, No xxxiii, p.343)
  • Johann Neander (German theologian and Church historian, 1789–1850):“The Doctrine of the Trinity does not, it appears to me, belong strictly tothe fundamentals of the Christian faith; as it appears from the fact that itis explicitly set forth in no one particular passage of the New Testament;for the only one in which this is done, the passage relating to the threethat bear record [1 John 5.7] is undoubtedly spurious, and in its ungenuineshape testifies to the fact.” (History of Christian Religion, vol. ii p.286)
  • Dr Joseph Priestly (1871): “Why was not the doctrine of the Trinity taughtas explicitly, and in as definite a manner, in the New Testament at least, asthe doctrine of the divine Unity is taught in both the Old and NewTestaments, if it be a truth? And why is the doctrine of the Unity alwaysdelivered in so unguarded a manner and without any exception made infavour of the Trinity, to prevent any mistake with respect to it?” (A Historyof the Corruptions of Christianity. The British and foreign UnitarianAssociation, London, 1871)
  • Thomas Mozeley (the brother-in-law of the famous nineteenth-centuryCardinal Newman) “I ask with all humbleness where the idea of Threenessis expressed in the New Testament with a doctrinal sense and force?Where is the Triune God held up to be worshipped, loved and obeyed?Where is He preached and proclaimed in that threefold Character? ...Certainly not in Scripture do we find the expression ‘God the Son’, or ‘Godthe Holy Ghost’. Whenever I pronounce the name of God, simply and first,I mean God the Father, and I cannot help meaning that, if I meananything.” (Reminiscences of the Oriel College and the Oxford Movement)
  • Dr W. Matthews (Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral,1940): “It must be admittedby everyone who has the rudiments of an historical sense that the doctrineof the Trinity, as a doctrine, formed no part of the original message. St.Paul knew it not, and would have been unable to understand the meaningof the terms used in the theological formula on which the Churchultimately agreed.” (God in Christian Thought and Experience)
  • Encyclopedia of Religion (1987): “Theologians today are in agreement thatthe Hebrew Bible does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity. Further,theologians agree that the New Testament also does not contain anexplicit doctrine of the trinity nor does the New Testament contain thetechnical language of later doctrine.” (Article: Trinity)

Don’t you think that testimonies such as these should make us hesitate before saying that the Trinity is a basic doctrine that defines Christianity and that salvation is impossible without it?

2) It formed no part of the early Christian beliefs

This increasing evidence that the Trinity is not a Bible doctrine is strengthened on considering the beliefs of the earliest Christians and subsequent history. Again, the following are indisputable facts.

It was not an original Christian doctrine, but gradually developed over a period of 300 years. As a modern writer says: “In order to understand the doctrine of the Trinity it is necessary to understand that the doctrine is a development, and why it developed... It is a waste of time to attempt to read Trinitarian doctrine directly off the pages of the New Testament.” (A & R Hanson: Reasonable Belief. A survey of the Christian Faith, p. 170,1980, italics added)

For several years virtually all the converts to Christianity were Jews, who were (as are the Jews today) fanatical about the unity of God, Their basic text was “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deuteronomy 6.4) This is repeated many times throughout the Old Testament: “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.” (Isaiah 46.9)

If, therefore, the Apostles were preaching the Trinity, the first major obstacle would be to convince their Jewish audience that God was no longer one person but three. They would have needed to spell out quite clearly the arguments in support of this new concept, had it existed. Yet, as Trinitarians freely acknowledge, there is no trace of such confrontation or discussion in the early church. As a prominent 19th century Christian theologian observed: “The doctrine, then, is never defended in the New Testament, though unquestionably it would have been the main object of attack, and the main difficulty in the Christian system. It is never explained, though no doctrine could have been so much in need of explanation… And still more, this doctrine is never insisted upon as a necessary article of faith; though it is now represented by its defenders as lying at the foundation of Christianity.” (Andrews Norton (1833). A Statement of reasons For Not Believing The Doctrines of Trinitarians, Concerning The Nature of God and The Person of Christ).

To this can be added the words of Cardinal Newman, the prominent 19th century theologian recently beatified by the Pope, who admitted that the Trinity was not believed in the early church. He says that although some other doctrines were “consistently and uniformly confessed by the Primitive Church … But it surely is otherwise with the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. I do not see in what sense it can be said that there is a consensus of primitive [Church authorities] in its favour.” (Cardinal John Henry Newman 1845, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. 2nd Edition (London: J. Toovey, 1846), pp. 14-18,40-42).

3) It was a gradual development over more than 300 years

History describes that although it clearly was not an original tenet of the Christian faith, the teaching of the relationship between God and Jesus gradually changed over the first few centuries of the Christian era. The importation of Greek philosophical ideas by the early Christian “fathers” and the desire to make Christianity more palatable to the wider pagan community very slowly modified the original belief. Three hundred years of discussion (indeed confrontation, for the changes were strongly resisted in some quarters) resulted in the formal statement of the Trinity as it is taught today.

This process was, according to one historian not a straightforward and “unerring homing towards the truth”, but “a process of trial and error, almost hit and miss”. (A & R Hanson: Reasonable Belief. A survey of the Christian Faith, p.171,1980). The deity of the Holy Spirit was not considered or addressed for another 56 years after the Nicene creed was formulated. In 381, at the Council of Constantinople, the Holy Spirit was given equal status with Father and Son. The final definition of the doctrine was thus agreed upon and then made binding on all Christians. This obligation to believe in the Trinity was not imposed by the church leaders of the day, but by the decree of the Roman Emperor, who threatened severe sanctions for non-compliance. (Theodosius: Epsicopi tradi., July 381)

The ecclesiastical historian Mosheim when commenting on the gradual doctrinal changes in the first few centuries, says: “Thus it was with the doctrine of Christ, his person and natures... For that devout and venerable simplicity of the first ages of the church, which made men believe when God speaks, and obey when he commands, was thought by the chief doctors of this age [6th century] to be only fit for clowns.” (J. L. Mosheim D.D. Ecclesiastical History. Book II, Cent vi, ch.3. London, 1863; italics added).

What is your view? Do you also consider the beliefs of the early Christians “only fit for clowns”?

But with the coming of the Reformation, when the Bible had been translated into common languages for all to read, it is significant that the first doctrine to be challenged was that of the Trinity, and some of those who queried it paid with their lives – even at the hands of their fellow Christians. (For example Michael Servetus 1511-1553, who was burnt at the stake for his denial of the Trinity; William Penn the founder of the Quaker movement, and many others).

At the beginning of this article we quoted William Rusch who said that the development of the doctrine of the Trinity was: “a capitulation of the biblical revelation to a foreign system from which Christianity has still not yet escaped”. (W. Rusch, p.27; Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1980, italics added).

Are you still as sure about the Trinity as you were?

Passages showing Christ’s relationship to his Father

So much for history and the opinions of leading Christians. But more importantly, what does the Bible itself say? Here are some more facts, taken from Scripture itself.

In answer to a question about the greatest commandment, Jesus replied: “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.’” (Mark 12.29) If God was three in one what an excellent opportunity for explanation was missed.

Jesus repeatedly stated his subordination to his Father: “My Father is greater than I” (John 14.28), “The Son can do nothing of himself” (John 5.19,30), “My Father … is greater than all”. (John 10.29) The Apostle Paul confirms this relationship still applied in his day (when Jesus was in heaven in the presence of the Father): “The head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11.3) He also says that in the future, “when all things are made subject to him, then the Son himself will also be subject to Him [i.e. God] who put all things under him.” (1 Corinthians 15.28) So Jesus is subordinate to the Father and will be in all future ages.

Surely, even just one of these statements should make us pause for thought. But when the same ideas are repeated time and again, it is difficult to believe that Scripture teaches the co-equality of Father and Son.

Scripture also says that Jesus was “sent” by God; and that there was a possible conflict of wills, implying subordination. Had he been so inclined, Jesus could have asserted a different view, implying a separate personality: “I do not seek my own will but the will of the Father who sent me.” (John 5.30) “I do nothing of myself; but as my Father taught me, I speak these things.” (John 8.28)

Further, Jesus, even after his resurrection and glorification still describes his Father as “my God”. He said to the disciples: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.” (John 20.17) Later he uses the same terms in the book of Revelation: “I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God …I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem.” (Revelation 3.12)

So I ask: Does the Bible really teach the equality of Father and Son?

Part 2

I’m sure that after reading Part 1 in the previous issue many of my readers will have been fidgeting in their seats – if not jumping out of them – impatient to refer me to the Bible passages that they feel amply support the doctrine of the Trinity. But please ask yourself as we now proceed: “If I did not have the Trinity already in mind would I have deduced it from any passage that apparently supports the idea?”

At one time a passage from the letter of John was always quoted as proof: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” (1 John 5.7)

For centuries this was the proof text to demonstrate the Trinity, but now it is never mentioned in its support. Why? Because it is widely recognised that this was a fraudulent addition, dating from about the fifth century. Most modern versions omit this reference, often without even a word of explanation. So, whilst it cannot now be used in support of the doctrine, it makes one ask that if the Bible clearly taught the doctrine elsewhere in its pages, why did some scheming copyist feel the need to insert it?

“But”, you might say, “there are many other passages that imply the Trinity even if they do not actually spell it out.” Well, let’s look at some.

But before that I would like to repeat something I said previously. If one comes to the Bible with preconceived ideas it is sometimes possible to find a few verses that appear to support them. But that is entirely different from coming to the Bible with an open mind to learn what it really teaches. This is particularly true of the Trinity, as the following examples will show.

“I and my Father are one” (John 10.30) The saying: “A quotation without a context is a pretext”, applies here. Read the verses prior to this phrase to see what Jesus is really saying. He is referring to the safety of “his sheep”, and gives them two guarantees of protection. The first is in his own ability and love: “neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand” (v.28). But in addition, they have the even greater protection afforded by his Father: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (v.29). So here is a double guarantee: both God and Jesus will protect true Christians. And in this intention and ability to protect the sheep Jesus and his Father are united: “I and my Father are one”. This is obviously Christ’s meaning. Jesus and his Father are as one in their desire and ability to care for those who believe. Thus, his words have no Trinitarian overtones. And note that even in this regularly quoted passage the Trinity is excluded by Christ’s express statement that his Father is the greater!

‘Before Abraham was, I AM’ (John 8.58) Trinitarians claim that here Jesus is applying to himself the name by which God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush: “And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’. And he said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you”.’” (Exodus 3.14) In recent Bible versions the Trinitarian bias of the translators is shown by capitalising the “I AM”, but, as stated earlier, there is no such capitalisation in the original manuscripts. Translating “I am” in this way is simply an attempt to foist the translator’s personal predilections on the readers.

The phrase “I am” is a translation of two common Greek words ego eimi, which occur frequently in the New Testament. It simply means “I am the one” and in almost every place it occurs it is translated as “I am he”. Because the “he” does not occur in the Greek, in Bible translations it is usually added in italics to make the sense clear – as in all other instances but this one.

There are examples of this phrase in the very same chapter in John, which obviously have no Trinitarian connotation: "If you do not believe that I am he, you will die in your sins... When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself". (John 8.24, 28) You might ask why the translators did not use capital letters for “I am he” in these cases.

Jesus used similar language when he claimed his Messiahship to the woman of Samaria. She said: “‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he.’” (John 4.25-26. For other clearly non-trinitarian implications of ego eimi see Luke 21.8; John 9.9; 13.19; 18.5; 18.8; Acts 10.21; Revelation 1.18; 2.23.) Thus, when Jesus was asked if he was the Messiah he simply replied, “Yes, I am the one.”

What, then, was Jesus meaning by saying that before Abraham existed: “I am he”? He was simply stating that he was the promised Messiah – the one promised to Abraham; and says that with the eye of faith that patriarch looked forward with joy to the arrival of his notable descendant. (John 8.56)

“The Word made flesh”

This passage has been in my consciousness for over 70 years, ever since as a young schoolboy I queried the Trinity with my Religious Instruction master. He turned me to John 1.1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him.” (John 1.1-3) He said that “the Word” meant Jesus, as shown by verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” “There you are”, he commented, “Jesus, the Word, existed from the beginning and then took on human flesh at his birth.” My inexperience prevented any disputing this interpretation, but if he were with me now, I would make the following observations:

  • We must not interpret John’s writings in a way that contradicts the clear teaching of other Scripture. John had a very unique form of expression that often had a different “under the surface” meaning.
  • I would point out that “Word” is a translation of the common Greek word logos and there is nothing to indicate that it needs a capital letter.
  • Further, in the eminent Greek scholar Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament (the basis for our King James version) logos is correctly translated as “it” rather than “him”: “In the beginning was that word, and that word was with God: and God was that word. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by it, and without it, was made nothing that was made.In it was life…” (John 1.1-4, Tyndale 1535.) This rendering was also adopted in the Geneva Bible of 1560 (the commonlyused version in Elizabethan and Puritan times) and the Bishop’s Bible of1568, both of which also give no hint of personality attached to “the word”. It was only when the bishops convened to produce the 1611 King James Versionthat their Trinitarian prejudices turned Tyndale’s “it” into “him”.

Sorry, but we need to introduce a bit of Greek here – otherwise we cannot get just what John meant by “word”. As just mentioned, it is the Greek word logos – from which we derive many of our everyday words. For example, “biology” is literally the “word” (logos) about “life” (bios). A Greek lexicon defines logos as meaning: “The expression of thought (a) as embodying a conception or idea; (b) a saying or statement”. (Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament words; Oliphants Ltd, 1940). It does not simply mean a group of letters, as “a word” indicates today.

So, let’s put these first-century meanings (as given by the lexicon) into John’s opening verses: “In the beginning was the idea, and the idea was with God, and the idea was God. This conception was in the beginning with God. All things were made through it.” Does that now convey, let alone demand, the existence of an additional person who was present at the beginning?

Isn’t John actually saying that at the beginning God had a plan – a plan that was inseparable from Him? And that plan was expressed in His word – as He says through Isaiah: “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void… and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55.11) The “word” is the thoughts and purposes of God in action.

Right from the beginning God had a plan for the earth and mankind – a plan that was inseparable from Himself – a plan for which He created the world – a plan that necessitated the coming of a saviour. And, as John goes on to say, that plan, that word, materialised in the person of Jesus: “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1.14) To quote William Barclay, the much respected Bible scholar, "we might well translate John’s words, 'The mind of God became a man.'" (W Barclay, The Gospel of John, p. xxii) So John is saying that at the coming of Jesus, God’s age-old plan was being put into effect. He was not implying that Jesus was God or had personally existed from before the creation.

"I have come down from heaven" (John 6.38)

Jesus often used language like this, which, taken at face value, suggests that he had a previous existence in heaven. But, along with many other of Christ’s words recorded only by John, a literal interpretation is excluded by other Scripture.

In this instance, Jesus was comparing his teaching with the manna sent by God from heaven at the Exodus that sustained Israel in the wilderness. (Exodus 16) He said that unlike Moses who thus gave them literal food from heaven, God was now giving the “true bread from heaven” – Jesus himself. Of this he said: “This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die.” (John 6.50) So Jesus was not indicating that he had literally come down from heaven, but that he was the counterpart of the heaven-sent manna, which if spiritually “eaten” brings eternal life.

There are several other references, exclusive to John, where Jesus appears to say that he was in heaven previous to his life on earth. (John 3.13; 3.31; 6.38; 8.32; 16.28; 17.5)

The fact that all these allusions to Christ coming down from heaven are found only in the gospel record of John should make us pause. Did the other New Testament writers know of the pre-existence of Christ in heaven but did not mention it? Or could it be that John had a distinctive way of looking at the words of Jesus that bids us look beneath their apparent meaning?

Many of Christ’s sayings recorded by John were not intended to be taken literally, although sometimes his hearers did just that. When Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be ‘born anew’, he first took a literal interpretation: “How can a man be born when he is old?” (John 3.4) When Jesus said to the Jewish leaders: “You are from beneath; I am from above,” (John 8.23) he was obviously using figurative language, for they did not come from under the ground. He later admitted that such figurative language was his practice. (John 16.25)

Peter clearly explains the true situation – that prior to his birth Jesus existed in the mind of God, and God’s intention regarding him was not put into effect until his birth actually took place: “He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.” (I Peter 1.20)

"In the form of God" (Philippians 2.3-11)

There is another passage to which trinitarians invariably turn in support of their belief in the deity of Jesus. It is one that superficially supports the doctrine, especially if someone comes to it with the Trinity already in mind. The key passage speaks of Jesus who, “being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men”. (Philippians 2.6-7)

It is claimed that this describes the incarnation of Jesus, who having existed in heaven with God divested himself of his divinity and became a man.

We need to ask some questions about this. Paul is trying to impress on his readers the need for them to copy the humility of Christ. The previous verse reads: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” So we ask, how could the Philippians copy Christ in the particular way that Paul was suggesting? Could they also come down from heaven and become man? As a Professor of Divinity once said: “Paul is begging the Philippians to cease from dissension and to act with humility towards each other... It is asked whether it would be quite natural for him to enforce these simple moral lessons by incidental reference (and the only reference that he ever makes) to the vast problem of the mode of the incarnation.” (A.H. McNeile, New Testament Teaching in the Light of St. Paul's, 1923, p.65-66)

Or another scholar: “Looking afresh at Philippians chapter 2, we must ask the question whether Paul in these verses has really made what would be his only allusion to Jesus having been alive before his birth. The context of his remarks shows him to be urging the saints to be humble. It is often asked whether it is in any way probable that he would enforce the lesson by asking his readers to adopt the frame of mind of one who, having been eternally God, made the decision to become man.” (A Buzzard, Who is Jesus? P.20)

True. Would it not have been more appropriate for Paul to have pointed to the inspiring example of Christ’s humility and self-sacrifice in his human life than in a previous heavenly one?

One further point of many that we could make: Paul goes on to say that as a result of Christ’s humility and obedience even to death: “God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9) Several points arise here: (1) Jesus was exalted as a result of his humility, therefore he could not have previously been divine; (2) Jesus was then given “the name” above every name, so clearly he did not possess that divine name earlier; and (3) Christ’s exaltation was “to the glory of God the Father”, implying the lesser status of the Son.

The greatness of Jesus

But in all the foregoing, which shows that Jesus was not a component of a divine Trinity and that he has a lesser status, we certainly do not demean the person, the life, the works and the achievements of our Saviour. He was absolutely unique, the “express image” (Hebrews 1.3) of the Father, and spiritually he resided “in the bosom of the Father”. (John 1.18) All men should therefore “honour the Son just as they honour the Father”. (John 5:23) He was the Word of God revealed to us, expressing to mankind God’s attributes, thoughts, example and purpose. He will become King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19.16) and is worthy of all the praise, adoration and honour that poor mortals can bestow. (Revelation 5:12) Next to God he is the greatest being in the universe.

But he is not God in the Trinitarian sense.

Author: Peter Southgate
Source Light on a New World - Volume 34/2 and 34/3
Original source an extract from Peter Southgate's book "A challenge to all Christians"

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