Protestant pope, Protestant vatican, evangelical pope

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When is the Pope not the Pope? And when is the Vatican not the Vatican? Answer: When we’re talking about the Protestant pope and the evangelical pope, or the Protestant vatican and the evangelical vatican. Thoroughly confused yet?

definition of protestant pope, protestant vatican, evangelical popeWell don’t be too confused. These are just some of the interesting “Roman Catholic” metaphors that have sprung up in Christianese. In Roman Catholicism, as you know, the Pope is the central leader who wields a great deal of power and influence, and in a similar way the Vatican City is considered to be the headquarters of the worldwide Roman Catholic organization. So by way of parallel in the Protestant world, when people were trying to identify a certain person or place as being particularly important or influential among Protestants, it seemed natural (and maybe a little playful) to refer to that person or place as the “Protestant pope” or the “Protestant vatican.” In other words, either an important or influential Protestant leader or else a particular city where there is Protestant influence. As you can see in the list of definitions below, folks have gone a little crazy with this idea.

Now, of course, Protestantism doesn’t have a central leader the way that the Roman Catholic church does. So calling a certain Protestant a “pope” or calling a city a “vatican” is a purely figurative use of the terms. When people use these various Christianese terms, they’re not really advocating for a top-down, centralized hierarchy like you find in the Catholic church. Nope. “Pope” and “vatican” are just honorary metaphors that are meant to recognize the luminaries and leaders within Protestantism.

It sort of makes sense that Protestantism would borrow terms from Roman Catholicism, but what you might not have expected was the appearance of such Christianese metaphors as Christian mecca, ecclesiastical UN, and Protestant Kremlin. Wow!

Reading through the various Protestants that have been labeled “popes” like this is a bit of a history lesson. You’ve surely heard of Billy Graham and John Calvin, and Reinhold Niebuhr and John Stott are pretty well-known too. But before today had you ever heard of Philippe Mornay du Plessis? (I hadn’t heard of him until I started researching these terms.)

Probably my favorite “Protestant pope” is the one listed at sense 8 under Protestant pope: the Bible. That’s right! Whereas Catholics look to the Pope and his occasional ex cathedra pronouncements as their ultimate theological authority, most Protestants will say that in their life it’s the Bible that takes on this role of unequaled authority. I think it tickles my funny-bone to think of a book as a pope. Oh well—that’s metaphors for you!

The various “vaticans” are a similar story. You may have heard that a lot of evangelical organizations, including the Navigators, Young Life, Focus on the Family, Compassion International, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, are headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and thus the city has been nicknamed the evangelical vatican or the American vatican.

But how familiar are you with Wheaton, Illinois, which has a similar distinction? In 2008 the city was said to have more churches per capita than any other city in America. Wheaton is also home to the headquarters of Crossway (the publisher of the popular English Standard Version of the Bible) as well the headquarters of the National Association of Evangelicals. And just outside of Wheaton, in Carol Stream, you find Tyndale House Publishers.

You’ll find Nashville, Tennessee, listed in some of the definitions below too. A lot of the quotations in the definitions give interesting tidbits of what makes these cities such famous Protestant “vaticans” and “meccas.”

Have you honestly heard of some of these “popes” and “vaticans” in your everyday conversation with other Christians? Have you heard of any that aren’t on this list? Share ’em in the comments!


Protestant pope n. A leading and influential figure in Protestant Christianity. See various senses.
1. Philippe Mornay du Plessis (1549–1623).
1703 Hartley A Universal, Historical, Geographical, Chronological, and Poetical Dictionary II. s.v. “Mornay” : Philip du Plessis-Mornay … was called the Protestant Pope. 1784 Owen A New and General Biographical Dict. 390 : In 1598 he [=du Plessis] published his treatise On the Eucharist; which occasioned the conference at Fontainebleau in 1600k, between Du Perron, then bishop of Evreux, afterwards cardinal, and M. du Plessis; and raised his reputation and credit among the Protestants to so prodigious a height, that he was called by many, “the Protestant Pope.” 1828 Gorton A General Biographical Dict. II. 501 : It was not, however, till 1598, four years after his secession from the court of Henry, that his most able, as well as most celebrated work was given to the world; this was a treatise on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in which he so ably vindicated the Calvinistic doctrines, as opposed to that of transubstantiation, that the book made a great noise, and cardinal Du Perron, two years after its publication, entering into a personal disputation with the author on the subject, in a conference at Fontainbleau, the latter maintained his argument with so much ability, as to acquire from those of his own persuasion the honorary appellation of the “Protestant Pope.”
2. Also Protestant pope of Geneva. John Calvin (1509–1564).
1852 The Lady’s Companion and Monthly Mag. (1 Jan.) 27 : John Calvin, the celebrated Reformer … might not inaptly have been termed the Protestant Pope of Christendom. 1907 Whitney The Reformation 101 : In his later years the influence of Calvin reached far and wide; as a sort of Protestant Pope he received questions for decisions, and wrote to sovereigns upon equal terms; his views governed a large territory of Protestant thought; and, until early in the seventeenth century an Arminian revival began, Protestant orthodoxy was judged by agreement with him. 1995 Congram This Presbyterian Church of Ours 39 : Calvin gave in and went to help establish the Reformation in Geneva. Some referred to him as the “Protestant Pope of Geneva” for what they viewed as his rather autocratic efforts to ensure that Geneva become a thoroughly Protestant City. 2000 Everdell The End of Kings 110 : During his years in Geneva, from 1541 until his death in 1564, Calvin was sometimes called the “Protestant Pope.”
3. Charles H. Spurgeon (1834–1892).
1873 The Spectator (16 Aug.) 1044 : When we think of Mr. Spurgeon, we think immediately of the vast and commodious, if ugly, building known as the Metropolitan Tabernacle, over which this Protestant Pope (if the two words can be placed in conjunction) holds unquestioned supremacy. 1981 Lockwood Passionate Pilgrims: The American Traveler in Great Britain, 1800-1914 430 : Charles Haddon Spurgeon, called by some “The Protestant Pope.”
4. The general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
1948 Time vol. 55 52 : A meeting that has been called the most significant occasion since the Protestant Reformation—the first Assembly of the World Council of Churches…. When the Council’s first meeting ends there will be as many sects and denominations as before; there will be no “Protestant Pope,” nor even a unified high command. But the hope is that a new peak will be reached in brotherly understanding, and that a long step will be taken toward church reunion. 1966 Newsweek (21 Feb.) 92 : The election of the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches is the closest that Protestant and Orthodox Christians ever come to selecting a Pope…. And by a surprisingly lopsided vote of 79–3 the committee chose Dr. Eugene Carson Blake\zfourdots [The challenges facing the WCC are] a big order, even for the “Protestant Pope.” 1974 Time vol. 100 147 : The man who won the World Council’s chief executive post last week … is Philip Alford Potter…. Potter will then take up a five-year term as ecumenical spokesman for more than 250 member denominations of the World Council, including Protestants, Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox—some 400 million Christians in all. Since Protestants form the core of the organization, he will become (though in a vastly less powerful way than Rome’s Pontiff) the Protestant “Pope.” 1994 Layman American Decades, 1960–1969 432 : By the middle of the decade Eugene Carson Blake was sometimes laughingly referred to as the “Protestant Pope.” He seemed to be everywhere. 2006 Encyc. of the Developing World I. 1729 : [In the 1950s] some denominationalists worried that the World Council of Churches was becoming a super-church, with Geneva as a Protestant Rome and the General Secretary as a Protestant Pope.
5. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971).
1951 Curti The Growth of American Thought 2/e 775 : The growing prestige of Niebuhr, whom some called “the Protestant pope,” was one evidence of the growth of a new orthodoxy. 1971 Nelson The Impact of War on American Life 270 : Reinhold Niebuhr, sometimes called the “Protestant Pope,” gained a large following for his neo-orthodoxy.
6. Billy Graham (1918–    ).
See also *evangelical pope.
1986 Waterfield Conflict and Crisis in Rural America 000 : A southern Baptist, Graham is a sort of Protestant pope to millions of Americans. 1992 First Things iss. 19–23 57 : Graham truly became a national, and eventually international, religious figure—what some have called a Protestant pope. 2002 Thompson Current Biography Yearbook 2002 193 : Billy Graham has preached to more than 200 million people around the world; indeed, he wields such influence that he has sometimes been referred to as the “Protestant Pope.”
7. W.A. Criswell (1909–2002).
1988 Nevins Strangers at Your Door: How to Respond to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and More 96 : Criswell was once introduced by Falwell as “the Protestant Pope of this generation.” 2008 Schulman, Zelizer Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s 46 : Falwell, Robertson, and other luminaries joined 15,000 Dallas evangelicals led by the senior pastor of the city’s gargantuan First Baptist Church, the Reverend W.A. Criswell (a prominent Southern Baptist some called “the Protestant Pope”), for two days of politico-religious sermonizing.
8. The Bible.
2009 Kania A Believable Bible 6 : The Bible is today called “The Protestant Pope.” When Protestants rejected the authority of the Historical Church and the Pope, the Bible became their replacement for the authority of their faith.
9. Various others who have been nicknamed “the Protestant pope”: Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575); Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801).
10. Any important or influential Christian, or one who is so regarded.
1977 The Wittenburg Door (Feb.–Mar.) 26 : You give me far more credit than I deserve. I’m not the Protestant Pope. I don’t tell people what to do.
Protestant vatican n. Also: Protestant Vatican. A center of influence and power in the Protestant community. See various senses.
See also *evangelical pope; *evangelical vatican.
1. Geneva, Switzerland.
1850 Baxter Impressions of Central and Southern Europe: Being Notes of Successive Journeys in Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and the Levant 375 : Geneva recalls to mind many memorable incidents in the history of the church; for in it dwelt men who struck fearful blows at the root of the old superstition. St. Peter’s Church was the Protestant Vatican—John Calvin’s pulpit the rostrum from which early reformers proclaimed the sins of Babylon. 1964 Kubly Switzerland 29 : With his reformation, Calvin succeeded in turning Geneva into a Protestant Vatican. 1965 Newsweek vol. 66 82 : The Protestant “Vatican” … in Geneva, where reformer John Calvin once hoped to build his new Jerusalem … 1975 Skiing (Dec.) 37 : I stayed in Geneva a day—that tranquil, industrious city of Calvin that someone once dubbed the Protestant Vatican. 1998 Kee Christianity: A Social and Cultural History 295 : The Geneva church functioned as the international headquarters for this missionary movement, a kind of Protestant Vatican.
2. Nashville, Tennessee.
1940 Herbermann The Catholic Encyc. 000 : Nashville has been called the “Protestant Vatican” because of its numerous publishing houses and missionary and Sunday school boards. 1947 Gunther Inside U.S.A. : Nashville … is known as “the Protestant Vatican of the South.” No man can hold office in Tennessee unless he believes in God, by state law. 1960 The Twentieth Century vol. 168 558 : Nashville is not only the Bible Belt capital (it is known as the Protestant Vatican and produces America’s largest volume of religious tracts), but is also now the C-and-W [=country-and-western music] industry’s capital of music publishing. 1976 Time vol. 108 iss. 10–17 87 : Nashville is a church town. It is the South’s Protestant Vatican. 2010 Cartwright More Miles Than Money: Journeys Through American Music 224 : Walking also emphasizes how Nashville earns its “Protestant Vatican” nickname; city limits containing over a thousand churches—more per capita than anywhere else in the USA—missionary organisations, Bible publishers, faith-based colleges, religious administrators and preacher-teachers are all based here.
3. Any of various ecumenical organizations, such as the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC); also, a hypothetical ecumenical organization (see citations for 1937 and 1966).
See also *superchurch.
1937 Otto Religious Essays 142 : Still less are we thinking of proposing an all-inclusive super-organization of Protestant church organizations, with perhaps a Protestant Vatican at its head. 1953 Roy Apostles of Discord: A Study of Organized Bigotry and Disruption on the Fringes of Protestantism 223 : McIntire … depicts the ecumenical movement [as represented by the National Council of Churches] as “a Protestant Vatican” or a “super-Church.” 1957 Hist. Mag. Protestant Episcopal Church vol. 26 159 : He congratulated his own Church on never having had any part in the movement, recriminated against Constantinople and Bulgaria for having participated, and characterized the World Council as being a “Protestant Vatican.” 1963 Cain They’d Rather Be Right: Youth and the Conservative Movement 198 : The latest folly emanating from the Protestant Vatican, the NCC. 1966 Presbyterian Survey vol. 56 4 : But is this what the whole ecumenical movement is all about? Are churchmen, on the world, national, or local level, driving for a huge “Protestant Vatican” Is there any reality in this myth about a super-church? 1967 The Living Church vol. 155 : A bureaucrat at the “Protestant Vatican” on Riverside Drive [=the street address of the headquarters of the National Council of Churches]. 1985 Morgan The Law and Politics of Civil Rights and Liberties 4 : From its headquarters on Riverside Drive in New York City (often referred to by cynics as the “Protestant Vatican”), the National Council [of Churches] has been involved not only in religious liberty cases and controversies throughout the country but in many important civil rights cases. 1994 Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism 211 : The WCC is not a super-church, neither is it the “Protestant Vatican,” nor the “ecclesiastical UN.”
4. Wheaton, Illinois.
1975 Baldwin What Did Jesus Say About That? 87 : Wheaton, Ill., is a city of churches and Christian organizations, sort of a Protestant Vatican in the eyes of some. 1978 Amerding Leadership 14 : The city of Wheaton is humorously characterized as the Protestant Vatican or the Holy City because it is the headquarters for numerous evangelical organizations. 1982 Liberty: A Mag. of Religious Freedom vols. 76–77 85 : Set up in 1942 and headquartered in Wheaton, Illinois (“the Protestant Vatican”), NAE [National Association of Evangelicals] represents thirty-four small evangelical denominations, as well as individual congregations from another thirty denominations, that subscribe to a seven-part doctrinal statement. 1996 Josephs, Bechhöfer Rosa’s Child: The True Story of One Woman’s Quest for a Lost Mother and a Vanished Past 56 : Such sizeable offerings were standard practice in Wheaton, a city long recognized as a centre of religious activity and sometimes referred to as the “Protestant Vatican of the Midwest.” 2006 Call Wheaton 99 : The presence of Wheaton College [in Wheaton, Illinois,] has for years invited a host of associate interests, earning the city its nicknames “Saints’ Rest” and the “Protestant Vatican.”
5. Dresden, Germany.
2005 Gill A.A. Gill Is Away 242 : Dresden … is also the capital of Saxony, sometime birthplace of the kings of Poland, the cradle of Lutheranism, and was once called the Protestant Vatican.
6. Dallas, Texas.
1980 National Geographic vol. 157 n.p. : Dallas is … a kind of Protestant Vatican; it is home to the largest Baptist and Presbyterian churches in the land.
evangelical pope n. A leading and influential evangelical. See various senses.
See also *Protestant pope.
1. Francis Close (1797–1882).
1951 Brown Round Carlisle Cross 000 : Coming in 1856 from Cheltenham, where he [Close] had for many years been the ruling figure, and was dubbed its Evangelical Pope, he at once took the stage in Carlisle as one born to command. 1970 The Victorian Crisis of Faith: Six Lectures V. 45 : Compare them, I suggeset, with the established “Evangelical pope,” Dean Close of Cheltenham, influential, not unprosperous, preaching to the converted in a comfortable and rather luxurious church while the footmen waited for the owners of the fashionable carriages outside. 1986 Lewis Lighten Their Darkness: The Evangelical Mission to Working-Class London, 1828–1860 68 : Francis Close, the noted “Evangelical Pope of Cheltenham” had launched a successful attack on the [horse] races in his county in the late 1820s, arguing that Christian avoidance of the races was not adequate.
2. Billy Graham (1918–    ).
1974 Wilson Count It All Joy (1984) 311 : As a matter of fact, the headlines of a Toronto paper in 1974 read, Billy Graham: The New Evangelical Pope. Such misunderstandings as that have caused Billy often to withdraw from leadership roles he perhaps should have accepted. 2008 Gushee The Future of Faith in American Politics xix : A growing number of visible evangelicals, including the “evangelical pope,” Billy Graham, are disillusioned with politics, especially with conservative evangelical engagement in politics.
3. John Stott (1921–2011).
2004 Bates A Church at War 199 : In Dallas, the cardinal’s letter, written a couple of weeks before, was read out to wild applause, eclipsing even that accorded to a similarly supportive message from the Evangelical “pope” John Stott. 2004 Bates A Church at War 12 : John Stott, the high priest of Evangelical Anglicanism … the “Evangelical Pope,” as he is sometimes irreverently called (or “Stotty” to his intimates), the second most influential Anglican of the twentieth century after Archbishop William Temple, according to former Archbishop Robert Runcie, has been such a dynamic force within Evangelicalism.
evangelical vatican n. A city where there are a large number of evangelical churches and organizations. See various senses.
See also *evangelical pope; *Protestant vatican.
1. Wheaton, Illinois.
1967 Mademoiselle vol. 65 158 : Some students call Wheaton the “Evangelical Vatican.” But if its constituency is interdenominational, there is nothing uncertain about Wheaton’s position. 1978 New York Times (21 Jul.) : This pleasant Chicago suburb is gaining a reputation as the “Vatican of Evangelicals.” At least 30 evangelical organizations now have main offices either in Wheaton or the industrial park at Carol Stream. 1999 Webber Ancient–Future Faith 174 : I live in Wheaton, Illinois, a place that many people jokingly call the “evangelical Vatican.” The presence of Wheaton College with its large administration, faculty, and staff as well as numerous Christian organizations such as Christianity Today and Tyndale House Publishers means that there is a decided Christian influence in this town.
2. Colorado Springs, Colorado.
2006 Lanham The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right xxi : Immersing ourselves in evangelical culture, we became temporary citizens of Colorado Springs, a town that has become known as the Evangelical Vatican. 2008 Robinson, De Lee Ethics Education in the Military 63 : On the other hand, it has been my experience that the kinds of independent and nondenominational Evangelical churches many cadets choose to attend (Colorado Springs being “the Evangelical Vatican”) tend to instil a resistance to critical thinking and complexity in ethical reflection.
Protestant Rome n. A center of influence and power in the Protestant community. See various senses.
1. Nîmes, France.
1816 Clarke The History of the War: From the Commencement of the French Revolution to the Present Time III. 395 : Protestantism had been spread through many provinces of France in a greater or less degree, but the south was its principal abode, and Nismes had been called the protestant Rome.
2. Geneva, Switzerland.
The 1830 quote suggests that the term was coined by Roman Catholics; it since became adopted by Protestants however. By the 20th century, the term seems to have fallen out of use (see 1921 citation).
1818 The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature (Mar.) 179 : With solemn, with deeply solemn feelings does it become us to contemplate this melancholy crisis of a church once esteemed as the mother church of the Reformation, to which all the other reformed churches did not scruple to give the title of “Protestant Rome,” now the very hold of infidelity. 1825 Toplady The Works of Augustus M. Toplady I. 228 : Geneva … was once dreaded by papists as one of the head quarters of Calvinism and termed by them for that reason, “The Protestant Rome.” 1844 Scotland Free Church First Report 11 : Geneva, the town of Calvin—the Protestant Rome, as she is yet often called in France. 1851 The Latter-Day Saints Millennial Star (15 Jun.) 187 : During my sojourn in Switzerland, I have been principally in Geneva, or, what is called in religious circles, “Protestant Rome.” 1875 Spalding The History of the Protestant Reformation I. 498 : Geneva has been called the Protestant Rome, on account of its having been for so long a period the headquarters of the opposition to the Catholic Religion. But it is Protestant Rome no longer, simply because it has ceased to be Protestant in any proper sense of the term. Nearly one-half of the city, and considerably more than half of the Canton is now Catholic. 1902 Kington-Oliphant Rome and Reform I. 348 : There was a city just beyond the French border that was winning the title of the Protestant Rome. Calvin had been at work in Geneva for many years, and had transformed the place. 1921 The Unitarian Register (27 Jan.) 89 : For some years previous to the World War the Catholic population of Geneva, once the Protestant Rome, increased at the expense of the Protestants.
American vatican n. A center of influence and power in the Protestant community. See various senses.
1. The Interchurch Center in New York City, a building which houses the headquarters of the National Council of Churches and many other religious organizations.
1972 Harmon The Interchurch Center: Reminiscences of an Incorrigible Promoter 352 : The Center has established itself as far more than the operator of a 19-story headquarters building variously labelled “The God Box,” “The American Vatican” and “The Interfaith Center” by wise-cracking seminarians.
2. Colorado Springs, Colorado.
2008 Lee The Hunted 185 : “This is also an air force town. Cheyenne Mountain. The Air Force Academy. There are two other air force bases, plus the army’s Fort Carson. And Don’t forget that we’re also the American Vatican.” Both Jerrod and Erin gave him uncomprehending looks. “American Vatican?” she asked. Pete chuckled. “A couple of the largest and most influential evangelical ministries have their headquarters here. They’re a powerful influence too.”
3. Any of various influential organizations in the Protestant community.
2010 Manrique For the People 104 : Pastor Warren [of Saddleback Church, California, is] … the modern-day face of evangelicalism. His 2002 spiritual guide, The Purpose Driven Life has sold over thirty million copies worldwide. So established as the American Vatican, it was only fitting that Saddleback Church and its pastor host the first official meeting between the two major party presidential candidates in the 2008 election.
Christian Mecca n. A city where there are a large number of churches and Christian organizations. See various senses.
See also *evangelical vatican; *Protestant vatican; *Protestant Rome.
1. Colorado Springs, Colorado.
2007 Dodd My Faith So Far 101 : Colorado Springs … with its explosion of big evangelical ministries that began there or moved headquarters there is the new Christian Mecca, like Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Pasadena, California, and (ahem) Tulsa, Oklahoma, before it.
2. Nashville, Tennessee.
2008 Turner Churched 3 : “Nashville is the Christian Mecca.” Jim made air quotes with his fingers when he said “Christian Mecca.”
ecclesiastical UN n. An international ecumenical organization, such as the World Council of Churches (WCC).
See also *evangelical vatican; *Protestant Rome; *Protestant vatican.
1954 McIntire Servants of Apostasy (1955) 108 : The Tulsa Tribune, Tulsa, Oklahoma, August 14, 1954, in a lengthy editorial, written by its editor, Richard Lloyd Jones, called the World Council of Churches the ecclesiastical UN. 1994 Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism 211 : The WCC is not a super-church, neither is it the “Protestant Vatican,” nor the “ecclesiastical UN.” 1997 Naylor, Willimon Downsizing the U.S.A. 147 : Good-bye Ecclesiastical UN The World Council of Churches is facing severe financial difficulties, and only “drastic action” on the part of the international ecumenical organization’s 330 member churches can end the crisis.
Holy City n. As in: the Holy City. A city where there are a large number of churches and Christian organizations; thus, a nickname for Wheaton, Illinois.
See also *evangelical vatican; *Protestant vatican; *Protestant Rome.
1978 Armerding Leadership 14 : The city of Wheaton is humorously characterized as the Protestant Vatican or the Holy City because it is the headquarters for numerous evangelical organizations. 1980 Quebedeaux The Worldly Evangelicals 42 : The NAE, whose headquarters are located in Wheaton, Illinois (the “holy city” of evangelicals), is a voluntary association of evangelical denominations, churches, schools, organizations, and individuals. 1991 Larson Growing Adults on Sunday Morning 000 : I was visiting in a church in Wheaton, Illinois, that rather “holy city” of America.
Protestant Kremlin n. A center of influence and power in the Protestant community. See various senses.
1. Geneva, Switzerland.
1967 Commentary XLIII. 62 : He [=John Calvin] organized the Protestants all over Europe, and he did his best to destroy all those who didn’t go along with him. Geneva was the Protestant Kremlin.
2. The Interchurch Center in New York City, a building which contains the headquarters of the National Council of Churches and many other religious organizations.
2001 Balmer Religion in Twentiety-Century America 61 : By the late 1950s the National Council of Churches joined this Protestant pantheon in a hulking, modern building known formally as the Interchurch Center and informally as the “God Box” or the “Protestant Kremlin.”
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