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St. Patrick on the Trinity



Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Today we celebrate Saint Patrick of Ireland (c. 390 – c. 461).  He was the son of a deacon and a grandson of a presbyter (priest).  Although born into a Christian family, he was spiritually complacent until his enslavement by Irish raiders precipitated a spiritual crisis.  His brand of Christianity can be labeled Celtic Christianity, much like that of Saint Columba.  Saint Patrick was not a Roman Catholic.  Ireland and Britain did not begin to come under papal rule until Pope Gregory sent Augustine of Canterbury in 596.  We celebrate the life of Saint Patrick, especially his bringing the Good News of Christ to the pagan Irish and Britons.  We also reflect on his upholding the Orthodox faith in the Trinity.

I recently received some questions from a reader about Saint Patrick’s understanding of the Trinity, especially with respect to the Filioque.

How do we know what a pre-schism saint in West or in East would have believed about the procession of the Holy Spirit (& the Filioque issue) if he (or she) left no oral or written tradition of having even considered the theological-doctrinal issue? Do we assume they all knew and believed the Creed of Constantinople I (after that council) (or would have believed it before that council formulated the Greek words)?  Since the Holy Spirit like the Father and the Son Jesus Christ is ever the same God, should we not assume Saint Patrick was not necessarily bound to endorse everything Augustine of Hippo speculated on Filioque, and that even Augustine himself did not hold Filioque as a dogma necessary for (unto) salvation?  What did Saint Patrick say on the Trinity and on the Holy Spirit?  

The question about whether Saint Patrick followed the Creed of Constantinople (381) seems to assume a top-down understanding of how the early Christians did theology.  One also needs to take into consideration the fact that as Christianity spread across the ancient world, the Church’s teaching on the Trinity was transmitted via the Regula Fidei – a baptismal creed that the bishop or priest transmitted (passed on) to the catechumen.  The primary source for the early Church’s theology was Apostolic Tradition.  We find evidence of the Trinity in the early creeds like the Apostles Creed which presented the Church’s Christology and doctrine and the Trinity in short, terse phrases.  It was not until the Arian controversy of the fourth century that the creeds took on a more formal and precise form that we know today.

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne d’Auxerre – Auxerre, Burgundy

Could Saint Patrick have known of Augustine of Hippo’s teaching on the double procession of the Holy Spirit?  There is no definite answer here, just speculation based upon the few facts known about his life.  We know that between his escape from Irish captivity and his later return to Ireland as a missionary, Patrick undertook theological studies in Gaul.  He studied in Auxerre (Burgundy), visited Marmoutier Abbey in Tours, received the monastic tonsure at the Lerins Abbey, and ordained to the priesthood by Saint Germanus of Auxerre.  If we assume that Patrick completed his formal studies by age 30 (circa 420), then he was studying theology while Augustine was writing De Trinitate circa 399 to 419.  Given the limited interchange between Ireland and Gaul in that period, it is improbable that Patrick knew of Augustine’s theological speculations.  Patrick became a monastic in Lerins, where there was some independence from Augustine of Hippo’s influence.  Vincent of Lerins (d. 445) is reputed to have opposed Augustine of Hippo’s “new” theology.  Did Saint Patrick know of the Council of Nicea and the Council of Constantinople?  Given his studies in Gaul in early 400s, a few decades after the first two Ecumenical Councils, it is quite probable that he knew of the two councils and the theological issues involved.


Reflections on Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

The well known Saint Patrick’s Breastplate or Lorica of Saint Patrick reflects an oral tradition that goes back to Saint Patrick.  Careful reading of this rune (prayer song) helps give insight into how Saint Patrick and other early Christians understood the Trinity.  The doctrine of the Trinity in the Breastplate reflects more the terse aphorisms of early baptismal creeds than elaborate formulas that would emerge in the wake later controversies.

In the opening and closing stanzas, Patrick does not express intellectual assent to a detailed theology of the Trinity as he binds himself to the Triune God for protection, succor, and guidance.  He understands being a Christian in terms of personal union with Christ.  It is in union with Christ that we have eternal life and are saved.  In the second stanza, Patrick recounts Christ’s saving work following the narrative of the ancient creeds.  In the third stanza, Patrick invokes the help of the heavenly hosts and the Church Triumphant.  In the fourth stanza, Patrick reflects on God’s creation which is charged with divine grace.  In the fifth stanza, Patrick reflects on the many ways God works in our lives.  God holds us; He guides us; He teaches us; He shields us from harm; He hearkens to our needs; and He gives us words to speak.  The sixth stanza invokes Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness.  The seventh stanza is an extended meditation on the many ways Christ is present in our lives – this is a profoundly intimate union that Christ has with us.  In the closing stanza, Patrick returns to the theme of personal union with Christ.  It speaks powerfully today to Christians living in a post-Christian world as it did to Saint Patrick’s pre-Christian Ireland.


  Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,
The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
The virtue of His coming on the Judgement Day.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the love of seraphim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,
In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles, faith of Confessors,In purity of holy Virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I bind myself today the power of heaven – Kerry Dark-Sky Reserve

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.

I bind to myself today
God’s Power to guide me,
God’s Might to uphold me,
God’s Wisdom to teach me,
Gd’s Eye to watch over me,
God’s Ear to hear me,
God’s Word to give me speech,
God’s Hand to guide me,
God’s Way to lie before me,
God’s Shield to shelter me,
God’s Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.
Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop [deck],
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity,
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

May we learn from Saint Patrick’s fierce, strong love for Christ.  Wishing you a blessed Saint Patrick Day!

Robert Arakaki


Additional Readings

Is Saint Patrick and Orthodox Saint?”  Reformed-Orthodox Bridge Robert Arakaki

Differences Between the Celtic and Roman ChurchesCushnie Enterprises

The Celtic Liturgy”  Cushnie Enterprises




  1. Aaron

    The focus on this article appears to be trying to prove St. Patrick was Orthodox and not Catholic. Your argument to prove this seems to be:

    If St Patrick held to “the Orthodox faith in the Trinity”, then he would have been familiar with the Nicean-Constantinoplitan Creed, and not familiar with St. Augustine’s De Trinitate
    He was familiar with the former and not the latter
    Therefore, St Patrick held to “the Orthodox faith in the Trinity”

    Aside from this being a logic fallacy known as “affirming the consequent”, the way you present this argument in confusing. For one, your argument in entirely based on undetermined speculation; you acknowledge this yourself when you write, “Could Saint Patrick have known of Augustine of Hippo’s teaching on the double procession of the Holy Spirit? There is no definite answer here, just speculation based upon the few facts known about his life.”, and “The question about whether Saint Patrick followed the Creed of Constantinople (381) seems to assume a top-down understanding of how the early Christians did theology.”

    I’m not sure what the Lorica section has anything to do with proving statements like “Saint Patrick was not a Roman Catholic” and “We also reflect on his upholding the Orthodox faith [as opposed to the Catholic faith?] in the Trinity.”

    In short, I’m left confused about the point you’re trying to make with this post. I fear it is an attempt to create an unnecessary, overly-simplistic attempt to “claim” St. Patrick against Catholics. Forgive me I’ve given an uncharitable interpretation of anything.

    • Robert Arakaki


      I wrote this article in response to a question from a reader who raised the issue of the Filioque and asked if St. Patrick could have known of this teaching. One answer I could have given was: “We don’t know.” And leave it at that. Instead, I thought it was an interesting research question. To answer it I drew on the historical evidence available to us. History is often messy and does not lend itself to neat syllogisms like the one you presented. I would caution you against seeking neat logical answers when it comes to matters of history. The methodology I employed was that of social history, not philosophical theology. Your accusation that I committed a logical fallacy is flawed because it assumes I was using the method of syllogistic reasoning. My approach is not deductive but rather inductive.

      Furthermore, I would caution you against reading more into my article than what is in it, especially with your opening assertion that I was trying to “prove” that Saint Patrick was Orthodox, not Roman Catholic. Nowhere in my article did I use the word “prove” or “proof.” To prove something, one must have a strong evidence-based argument which is not the case here given the limited historical data available to us. In short, we don’t know where Saint Patrick stood on the double procession of the Holy Spirit, but I’m strongly inclined to think that he was not aware of Augustine of Hippo’s theological speculation. The evidence doesn’t seem to be there.

      I do not think your interpretation to be uncharitable, but I suspect you are overreacting to the issue of the Filioque. In this day and age, it is unfortunate the Great Schism of 1054 created a rift between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians with adherents arguing for their side. The reader who submitted his questions framed them in terms of the Schism of 1054. I would have framed the question in more neutral terms. My response was to consider the historical evidence available to us and to draw reasonable inferences about Saint Patrick’s understanding of the Trinity. With respect to the second half of the article which contains the Lorica, my aim was to expose readers to a different approach to the Trinity – theology as prayer as opposed to theology as syllogism. I would encourage you to reread the Lorica, not as proving or disproving the Filioque, but as an example of vibrant faith that inspires Christians today as it did in Saint Patrick’s time.


  2. Dan from U.K.

    You state that the British Isles did not come “under Roman rule” until the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury. Perhaps it was just a throwaway comment, but I encounter this sort of claim often in Orthodox apologetics, as if the British peoples would not have recognised the Pope of Rome as their own patriarch. If so, which patriarchate were the British/Celts under?

    • Robert Arakaki


      The Pentarchy – the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – emerged gradually over time out of the apostolic institution of the episcopacy (office of the bishop). Very little known about the introduction of Christianity to British but it was sufficiently organized to send a delegation to the Council of Arles in 314. There were two traditions present in England: Celtic Christianity and Roman Christianity. The Celtic and Roman Christians disagreed on several minor issues and it at the Synod of Whitby (633-634) that the decision was made that England would follow Roman forms. Your question about which patriarchate the Celtic Christians would have come under is a fallacy of historical anachronism. Early Christianity was a diverse network of churches under the leadership of local bishops. In time took on a more formal and hierarchical structure, e.g., the Pentarchy and Ecumenical Councils. The papacy of Rome grew over time and gradually extended its influence over other regions like England and Ireland.


  3. Cynthia Long

    Re: St. Patrick and the Filioque

    The Latin / Gaelic Stowe Missal ~8th/9th Century featured a non-Filioque creed with the Filioque later inserted in the margin/between the lines by an obviously different (later) hand. I would conclude that the early Irish church (and St. Patrick) did not ascribe to the Filioque. (I don’t have my notes on hand to footnote this; please forgive me.)

    The Orthodox Wiki website says the Stowe Missal is “the only surviving example of the Divine Liturgy for the Celtic rites” and dates it at AD 750.

    Kind regards,

    Cynthia Long

    • Robert Arakaki

      Thank you Cynthia!


  4. Matthew Weston

    But would you affirm I hope that Saint Patrick was also not an Orthodox Christan?
    (Although he was indeed an orthodox Christian)

    Since the debates and distinct doctrine that separate Catholics from Orthodox post date Patrick it would seem to me that both could and should claim him.

    I’d say he is an Orthodox & he is a Catholic. He is ours where ours includes all orthodox Christians.

    I don’t see how you could claim him for one & not the other unless you ascribe to a triumphalistic ideology.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to debate where Catholics and Orthodox see orthodoxy differently.
    But I don’t think St Patrick’s theology or ecclesialogy would perfectly fit the modern rendition of either Church.
    So, can you clarify?

    • Robert Arakaki


      You posed some very challenging questions. Before I answer your questions, can you tell me which church tradition you belong to? Knowing where you come from theologically and ecclesially will help me frame my reply in a way that brings clarity and greater understanding across multiple traditions. Your suggestion that Saint Patrick was a small ‘o’ orthodox and not a big ‘o’ Orthodox Christian makes me wonder if you idefnity as Anglican or as a Mere Christianity Evangelical. Also, I am not sure what you mean by “triumphalistic ideology.” What do you mean by that and on what grounds is this viewpoint to be rejected? I look forward to hearing from you. In the meantime, I will be drafting my response.


  5. Matthew Weston

    How foolish of me.
    Meant to include.
    I’m Catholic, Latin Rite.
    I hope that makes my comments more understandable.
    I would think that St Patrick’s love of the Eucharist and such would mean that his faith would be closest to our two great Churches. By ours I meant especially this. Any baptized Christian could consider him a brother but he was certainly not any form of Protestant.
    Triumphalistic ideology :
    I was recently told “there is no priesthood nor baptism outside the Orthodox Church.”. That would be a prime example.
    Certainly, there are Catholics who disparage the Orthodox in ways not consistent with what our Catechism teaches. Who would call you heretics.

    It seems that we who are separated should be brothers where we can. In Truth & in charity. Especially those of us who share in Apostolic succession.
    To argue that the Orthodox Church is the most correct is fine and very good (naturally, I would quibble). To deny that others have some (varying amount) of the Truth would be both triumphalistic & inaccurate.
    I was not accusing you of this.

    I was simply struck by your assertion that Pat wasn’t a Roman Catholic, which he certainly wasn’t if by that you mean there is doctrine defined since his time which he would not necessarily have confessed.
    But there are many early saints who might have believed things (or not, we don’t always know) which were later anathamatized by a council. Are they not Catholic? Are they not Orthodox?

    Now, some will claim that the Orthodox, in contradistinction from the Catholics, have not changed in a thousand years. In praxis at least this is untrue. e.g. I doubt that Pat would have contananced divorce as readily as a local Orthodox Church does today.

    I think it makes more sense to generously include early saints as both Orthodox & Catholic. They are parents to us both.
    To other Christian communities it’s trickier. Pat would have been horrified to think that a Christian could deny that Our Lord comes bodily in every valid Liturgy.
    Anyway, I hope this rambling is somewhat clear.
    I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

    In His Merry,


    • Robert Arakaki


      Thank you for letting me know of your church affiliation, that helps a lot. I would agree that Saint Patrick is much closer to the Orthodox and Roman Catholics, than to Protestantism. I suspect that where we differ is how significant the 1054 Schism was. Some people view it as a minor disagreement in opinion while others view it as a major break in relations. In Orthodox ecclesiology, if a bishop deviates from Apostolic Tradition, he no longer has apostolic succession. There may be the outward, historical office of the episcopacy but the animating force of Apostolic Tradition has been severed. Thus, with the innovations of papal supremacy and the Filioque the Bishop of Rome has broken from the patristic consensus and severed apostolic succession. This is why Roman Catholic priests, Latin Rite or Uniate, cannot concelebrate at Orthodox liturgies. This also explains why Roman Catholics cannot receive Communion at Orthodox liturgies.

      The notion that Orthodox and Roman Catholics are separated brothers is a Roman Catholic one. We do not accept the understanding that there are two valid priesthoods or two valid sacramental systems. This would imply that there are two churches or that the Body of Christ is split in half. This violates the Nicene Creed’s affirmation that there is “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” That is, one Church, not two churches or two broken pieces. Logically this leads to the position that there is one true Church and one schismatic body. This is not triumphalism but an honest assessment of the great tragedy of the 1054 Schism.

      Strictly speaking, there is no distinction between the terms “Orthodox” and “Catholic.” I would like to say that the Orthodox Church I belong to is the Catholic Church but that would cause confusion and misunderstanding given the widespread presence of Roman Catholicism in the West. To avoid confusion I often tell people that I belong to the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” confessed in the Nicene Creed.

      Your question about who was an early saint if we don’t know exactly what they believed strikes me as a Western question, especially in the concern about Patrick’s theology. Orthodoxy approaches sainthood in terms of communion with the Church. That is if one lived an exemplary holy life and held to the teachings of the Church then one could conceivably be canonized a saint. Unlike Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy does not have an elaborate process for determining who is a saint. The year 1054 is used as a guideline for determining who is a saint. A Western Latin Christian who lived after 1054 would be disqualified from Orthodox sainthood on the basis that he or she held to the heretical teachings of the post-1054 Roman Catholic church. As admirable as Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi or Thomas Aquinas may be, we do not consider them to be saints. However, the Orthodox Church does recognize as saints Patrick the Enlightener of Ireland, Ambrose of Milan, Boniface of Frisia, Pope Leo of Rome, and Pope Gregory the Great. Augustine of Hippo is referred to as Blessed Augustine. You might have noticed that I do not use the term “Eastern Orthodox,” that is because Orthodoxy is not Eastern but a universal Faith. I wrote an article: “Is Orthodoxy Eastern?” dealing with this question.

      When I stated that Patrick was not a Roman Catholic, I meant that he was not under the authority of the Bishop of Rome. This would not happen until Augustine of Canterbury was sent by Pope Gregory in 596, about one hundred fifty years after Saint Patrick’s death. Strictly speaking, Roman Catholicism did not come into existence until the Great Schism of 1054. That was when the two distinguishing marks of Roman Catholicism: the claim to universal papal supremacy and the unilateral insertion of the Filioque clause into the Nicene Creed, emerged as points of contention. In my article, I considered the historical circumstances of Saint Patrick’s life and conjectured that it is improbable that he held to or accepted the two distinguishing marks of post-1054 Latin Christianity. You raised the issue of whether Saint Patrick might have accepted the Orthodox position on divorce, this is minor compared to the greater issues of papal supremacy and the Pope’s claim to have the authority to unilaterally amend the Nicene Creed.

      I wrote this article in response to some questions about Saint Patrick framed by the post-1054 Dvhidm. This reader also raised some questions about Saint Patrick’s position on the Filioque. These are very important questions on some rather controversial and painful issues. In my article I presented the first half of his questions; here I present the second half of the reader’s questions.

      What did Saint Patrick say on the Trinity and on the Holy Spirit? Maybe we cannot know these things, but was there any Western or Eastern writer who was not a heretic before the schism of 1054 who wrote anything remotely like Thomas Aquinas who wrote in “Contra Errores Graecorum” that to deny the universal jurisdiction of the pope (bishop) of Rome is an error akin to deny that the Holy Spirit proceedeth eternally from the Father “and the Son” (Filioque)? Aquinas considered it necessary unto salvation to believe Filioque and anyone who does not believe Filioque is in Aquinas’ view anathema Maranatha. Was it only after Charlemagne and pope Nicholas I later close to the time of Charlemagne (and Charlemagne’s councils in 792 and 809) that the Carolingians made an issue of Filioque and considered “the Greeks” (sic) anathema Maranatha for not saying/believing “Filioque”? In any case, Saint Patrick is an Orthodox saint; but I believe Thomas Aquinas is not considered an Orthodox saint (though Augustine of Hippo is an Orthodox saint)? God bless.

      Let me begin by noting that the Schism of 1054 was a great tragedy for Christianity. The Pentarchy suffered a great loss when the Bishop of Rome went his own way and the other patriarchates – Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – refused to accept Rome’s claims to papal supremacy and the insertion of the Filioque into the Nicene Creed. Rome broke away while the other Patriarchates stayed put.

      In what follows below are my poin-by-point responses to your earlier questions:

      One, can Saint Patrick can be considered a big ‘O’ Orthodox saint? The answer is Yes. When I visit the local Russian Orthodox parish I am happy to see the icon of Saint Patrick on the wall. The deacon there told me that they will be celebrating his feast day a few days from now.

      Two, to differentiate between small ‘o’ orthodox and big ‘O’ Orthodox is ambiguous and confusing. In Orthodoxy there is no small ‘o’ orthodoxy. Either one is formally (canonically) a member of the Orthodox Church (in communion with a local canonical bishop) or one is not in eucharistic communion with the Orthodox Church. The small ‘o’ orthodoxy is quite popular in certain Protestant circles that claim to promote “mere Christianity,” but they fail to define the parameters of this small ‘o’ orthodoxy and give reasons as to why they have the authority to define who belongs to this small ‘o’ orthodoxy and who does not.

      Three, Saint Patrick can be considered a big ‘C” Catholic saint, but then the proper name of the Orthodox Church is the “Orthodox Catholic Church.” The Orthodox Catholic Church is different from Roman Catholicism so care is needed when the term “Catholic” is used in interfaith dialogues like this one.

      Four, Saint Patrick cannot be considered a Roman Catholic saint. There is no evidence that he accepted the notion of papal supremacy and the necessity of accepting the Filioque clause. The first insertion of the Filioque into the Nicene Creed would not occur until a local council in Spain, the third Council of Toledo (589) without the approval of the Bishop of Rome. Furthermore, the reader who sent me his questions raised the issue of Thomas Aquinas’ condemnation of the so-called errors of the Greeks, e.g., the denial of papal supremacy and the exclusion of the Filioque. I was taken aback when I read his question about Aquinas’ condemnation of the Greek Orthodox but upon further research I found that the question had considerable merit. Aquinas in Contra Errores Graecorum Part 2 Chapter 32 “That the Roman Pontiff is the first and greatest among all bishops” wrote:

      The error of those who say that the Vicar of Christ, the Pontiff of the Roman Church, does not have a primacy over the universal Church is similar to the error of those who say that the Holy Spirit does not proceed from the Son. For Christ himself, the Son of God, consecrates and marks her as his own with the Holy Spirit, as it were with his own character and seal, as the authorities already cited make abundantly clear. And in like manner the Vicar of Christ by his primacy and foresight as a faithful servant keeps the Church Universal subject to Christ. It must, then, be shown from texts of the aforesaid Greek Doctors that the Vicar of Christ holds the fullness of power over the whole Church of Christ.

      Then in Chapter 38, Thomas Aquinas wrote: “It is also shown that to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for salvation.” Aquinas’ view here is not an extreme, nor deviant, but rather faithfully reflects the outlook of post-1054 Roman Catholicism. This leads me to conclude that in the centuries following 1054, Western Latin Christianity underwent major doctrinal changes diverging from its patristic roots. In short, Rome became heretical and schiismatic. In contrast, Orthodoxy retained continuity with its patristic roots. For the Schism to be healed, Roman Catholicism will need to return to its patristic roots; a good first step would be renouncing the claim to universal papal supremacy and the unilateral insertion of the Filioque into the Nicene Creed. I don’t think Roman Catholicism is ready to take these steps and so the best thing for now is to accept the fact that they have gone separate ways. The best we can hope for now is friendly, neighborly relations, not reunion. Saint Patrick can serve as a reminder that one time there was one Church with multiple expressions, e.g., Celtic, Byzantine, and Latin.

      The stark differences between Orthodoxy (Orthodox Catholic Church) and Roman Catholicism presented by your saint and church doctor, Thomas Aquinas, makes it very difficult to affirm your position that Saint Patrick is both Orthodox and Roman Catholic. To make this statement one must either dispense with logic or turn a blind eye to history. Let us agree that Saint Patrick would have been saddened by the Schism of 1054.


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