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Abstract:
Discusses the station and titles of Christ in an attempt to find common ground with Christians.
Notes:

Jesus Christ in the Bahá'í Writings, by Robert Stockman:
Review: Commentary concerning the differences between Christian and Bahá'í terminology

by Michael W. Sours

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 3:1
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1993
"Jesus Christ in the Bahá'í Writings"
Author: Robert Stockman
Publisher: Bahá'í Studies Review 2(1), 1992
Review by: Michael Sours


The Bahá'í Studies Review (vol. 2:1), published Dr. Robert Stockman's article 'Jesus in the Bahá'í Writings' which touches on a series of points concerning Bahá'í teachings about the station and titles of Christ. Central to the paper is an attempt to find common ground with Christians. In pursuit of this goal, he attempts to define, analyse and overcome differences of terminology that exist between Christianity and the Bahá'í Faith. One of the strengths of his paper is that he shows a desire to reach out to Christians by acknowledging the legitimacy of certain Christian terms, even though he believes they are somewhat alien to the Bahá'í Faith. Obviously, if these differences of terminology on important issues did not exist, it would be even easier to find common ground with Christians.

From the point of view of developing biblical studies as they relate to the Bahá'í Faith, the existence or nonexistence of such different terminology is surely a significant issue and one that can be discussed and possibly resolved at an early stage in the development of Bahá'í studies relating to Christianity. As it happens, many of the differences of terminology mentioned in the article, either do not exist at all, or do not exist in any substantive form. With this information at hand it is possible to build on Dr. Stockman's learned contributions.

The differences of terminology asserted by Dr. Stockman in this commentary can be enumerated briefly as follows: St. Paul stresses salvation through faith in Christ, but Bahá'u'lláh does not use the word 'salvation' (p. 38); in distinction from Christianity, the Bahá'í Faith uses different descriptives for Jesus, such as 'Manifestation of God' and 'Spirit of God' (p. 33); Bahá'í scriptures do not use the title 'Saviour' for Jesus, Bahá'u'lláh, or any other Manifestation of God (p. 39); and the Bahá'í writings say nothing about the title 'Son of God' or "only begotten Son of God" [John 3:16] (p. 37). An examination of these points might seem unimportant, especially to those who are not involved in biblical studies, but to a Christian, the omission, for example, of any reference by Bahá'u'lláh to salvation might seem quite strange and unsatisfactory.

Starting with 'salvation', it should be recognised that this term actually appears more frequently in Bahá'í scripture than in the whole of the New Testament. Its use belongs mostly to New Testament Apostolic preaching. The Gospel (Luke and John) only attribute the word to Jesus twice. Even in the small body of English translations of Bahá'u'lláh's writings alone the term 'salvation' appears more times than in all four Gospels and almost as many times as in the Pauline epistles.(1) The same is true with other familiar biblical terms, such as 'grace', 'heaven', 'hell', 'Satan', 'forgiveness', 'sins', and so on. Most cosmological and theophanic symbols in Bahá'í scripture also have biblical antecedents. The term salvation may be infrequent in Bahá'í scripture, but it is equally infrequent in the New Testament. Its importance is derived not, however, from its quantitative use, but rather from it theological significance which is shared by both Faiths.

Even though Christianity is primarily concerned with the salvation of the individual and the Bahá'í Faith is primarily concerned with the world's collective salvation, the term 'salvation' is used by both religions for individuals and the larger community of humankind. Concerning the salvation of humankind in Apostolic teaching, see, for example, St. Paul's and Barnabas' use of Isaiah 49:6 (Acts 13:47). For individual salvation in Bahá'í scripture, it should be noted that Bahá'u'lláh confronts us with the concept of salvation with the same personal urgency apparent in the Gospel. In one verse, He writes:

    We, verily, have come for your sakes, and have borne the misfortunes of the world for your salvation. (Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets 10)(2)

Here Bahá'u'lláh, like Christ, directly links His own sacrifice with the salvation of the world, and indeed, on a personal level. Moreover, aspects of Pauline teaching find a parallel in the Báb's words that, "deeds are secondary to faith" (The Báb, Selections 133) and Bahá'u'lláh's statement that "man's actions are acceptable after his having recognized [the Manifestation]" otherwise "his work shall God bring to naught" (Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle 61). These are, of course, complex issues which should be examined more fully.

Similarly, the Bahá'í writings use the term 'Saviour' with close enough approximations to the Gospel, that it goes without saying that all Manifestations are 'Saviours'. Shoghi Effendi calls Bahá'u'lláh "Saviour of the whole human-race" (Shoghi Effendi, Promised Day 114). In one of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's talks, it is recorded that He distinguishes the station of Christ from Napoleon Bonaparte, saying one is a destroyer, whereas Christ was "a Saviour" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation 211), a usage which suggests that the title is equally applicable to other Manifestations. 'Abdu'l-Bahá also refers to Muhammad as the "Ark of Salvation" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Secret of Divine Civilization 53).

The title 'Saviour'(3) (sótér) was applied to Christ on the basis of Israelite terminology and prophetic expectation (e.g., Luke 2:10). The Jews themselves understood Prophets (and Messiahs) to be 'Saviours' (for general Hebrew use of the term, see 2 Kings 13:5, Isa. 19:20, Obad. 21). It is used in the Book of Isaiah to refer to God, and sometimes in the New Testament to affirm Jesus' divinity,(4) and as such, the terminology is equally applicable to Muhammad, Bahá'u'lláh and other Manifestations of God. Since the biblical terms for 'Saviour' simply mean one who 'saves', 'frees', 'preserves', 'liberates' and so on, even if the title had not been used in Bahá'í scripture, from the teachings of the Kitáb-i-Íqán and from the theological significance of the term, we can understand that it is applicable to all Manifestations.

The observation that the Bahá'í Faith uses different descriptives for Jesus, such as 'Manifestation of God' and 'Spirit of God' is not without foundation, but it is worth noting that whereas Bahá'ís and Christians may choose to emphasise different terms in their own speech or writings, biblical and Bahá'í scripture often share important similarities. Bahá'ís, for example, use the terminology 'Manifestation of God', but similarly, this terminology is not entirely uncommon to Christian theological writings and can be easily established from biblical texts, especially with reference to the revelation of God's glory, be it in the theophany of Mount Sinai (which Christ equates with Himself), Ezekiel's vision, or the Person of Jesus Christ: "I [Jesus] have manifested Thy Name" (John 17:6), "God was manifest in the flesh" (1 Tim. 3:14); "He [Jesus] indeed... was manifest in these last times for you" (1 Pet. 1:20), "In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world" (1 John 4:9). In the New Testament, Jesus is thus a Manifestation of God's love, name, glory, etc., or simply, a Manifestation of God, a terminological use which can be understood as conveying the same meaning as 'Manifestation of God' conveys in Bahá'í scripture (see also: Isa. 65:1/Rom. 10:20).(5) This is not to deny distinctive Christian beliefs about 'incarnation', but rather to suggest that biblical and Bahá'í scripture often reflect similar terminologies.

The term 'Spirit of God' is also applicable to Christ in the Christian context. Far from originating with the Bahá'í Faith or being a distinctively 'Bahá'í' term for Jesus, 'Spirit of God' (Rúh'u'lláh) is a title for Jesus of disputed origins, but which can be traced back to and linked with certain biblical verses and Islamic traditions. Its ultimate origins are probably the annunciation described in the Gospel and later in the Qur'án (see, for example, Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'an 48-51), as well as in certain passages in St. Paul's writings, such as where Christ appears to be the focus of Paul's words when he speaks of being led by 'the Spirit of God' (Rom. 8:14, see also Rom. 8:9-10). Although many Christians may prefer 'incarnation' to 'Manifestation' when speaking about Christ, Bahá'í texts also use the term 'incarnation' to refer to Bahá'u'lláh (see Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 94, see also World Order 112). There are shifts in emphasis and differences of interpretation, but there are also important commonalities in the terminology which deserve more study.

There are other similarities between the christological terminology in the Gospel and the Bahá'í Faith. Bahá'u'lláh, for example, does call Jesus "the Son of God" (see Shoghi Effendi, World Order 105) and 'Abdu'l-Bahá applies the title to Jesus, so as to affirm its authenticity and validity - that is, that Jesus Himself used it,

    Verily did the Pharisees rise up against Messiah ... because He had claimed to be Almighty God, the sovereign Lord of all, and told them, "I am God's Son,(6) and verily in the inmost being of His only Son..." This, they said, was open blasphemy... ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections 40)

This statement says much about the significance of the title and comes so close to the christological portrait of John's Gospel, that it can be understood as an affirmation in substance of John 3:16. This statement, along with the general predominant emphasis the Gospel of John receives in Bahá'í scripture, suggest that the frequent use of the title 'Son' in Bahá'í scripture can be viewed in the same context. 'Abdu'l-Bahá's use of "God's Son" in relation to the qualifier "only" and the phrase "inmost being", suggests John's phrase "only begotten Son". Beyond this affirmation, 'Abdu'l-Bahá challenges not its applicability, but what Christians have construed from it (see 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, chaps. 17-18).

With regard to 'only begotten', this too appears in Bahá'u'lláh's writings. On one occasion, Bahá'u'lláh refers to God as "begetter of the Spirit (Jesus)" (Bahá'u'lláh, Prayers and Meditations 68). Less directly, Bahá'u'lláh points out that the Manifestations are the "only" (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 67) means "born" (ibid. 66) of God whereby humankind can be redeemed. Both the terminology and the concept, therefore, seem to be present in Bahá'í scripture.

Dr. Stockman notes that the Bahá'í writings apply the term 'Lord' to Jesus Christ, and explains this in the context of English language usage with the observation that it is applicable to "kings, nobility, masters, and others". This wide range of significances exists in the New Testament, but it would be misleading to assume this is the sense intended with regard to Jesus Christ. When applied to Christ, Lord (Greek: Kurios, to have power/authority/sovereignty) has a clear divine sense. This divine sovereignty is explained at length in the Kitáb-i-Íqán and with specific reference to Jesus Christ (Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán 132-4). Moreover, when Bahá'u'lláh applies the term 'Lord' to Christ it is used in a strictly divine sense: not 'Lord' as in a temporal king or noble, but 'Lord of all being' (Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle 100, emphasis added). For many Christians this is a particularly important point - and it is worth keeping in mind St. Paul's words "no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit" (I Cor. 12:3).

Another issue which perhaps deserved further consideration is the broader applicability of the terms. Dr. Stockman writes,

    Bahá'ís do not have to recognize the validity of, say, the title 'Son of Man' by attributing it to Muhammad, Bahá'u'lláh, or another Manifestation. Jesus can be the Son of Man; Muhammad can be the Seal of the Prophets; Bahá'u'lláh can be the Glory of God; each is different, yet none is better than the other because of His unique title. (p. 37)

The impression that such titles should be understood as 'unique' and in the context of the station of distinction raises a number of questions. This becomes more apparent when he adds,

    Historically 'Son of God' has been applied only to Jesus; Bahá'u'lláh does not claim the title for Himself, nor does He apply it to other Manifestations. Thus there seems to be no reason for Bahá'ís to apply the title in a general way to all Manifestations of God. (p. 38)

Treating titles as names, in the modern sense, could cause us to loose sight of what the titles actually mean. Bahá'u'lláh indicates that Muhammad was "the Son of Man" foretold in the New Testament (Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán 25ff), a prophecy He later indicates is applicable to Himself (Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets 115-16). Similarly, Bahá'u'lláh indicates that all the Manifestations can be regarded as the Seal of the Prophets (Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán 179). There is also a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which may be applicable to this issue. He states,

    It is true that Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of God, but this, as explained by Bahá'u'lláh in the Íqán, does not indicate any physical relationship whatever. Its meaning is entirely spiritual and points to the close relationship existing between Him and the Almighty God. Nor does it necessarily indicate any inherent superiority in the station of Jesus over other Prophets and Messengers. As far as their spiritual nature is concerned all Prophets can be regarded as Sons of God... (see Lights of Guidance 491)

One reason for applying such titles to other Manifestations - at least in the context of our own theological understanding - is because Bahá'u'lláh wishes people to see the universality and divinity of all the Manifestations so that the followers of different religions will cease to contend among themselves. The whole discussion about the applicability of the titles of the Manifestations is an important and sensitive one which effects the process of self-definition within a religious community and how they view other religions around them. It is an issue from which we can, no doubt, learn some lessons by examining the course of Christian history.

The purpose here is not to devalue or distract from the merits of the paper, but to build on it the interest of Bahá'í/Christian studies. Many readers turn to scholarly publications seeking information about such issues as the relationship between the Bahá'í Faith and Christianity, but are not themselves directly involved in related research. For this reason it seems appropriate to scrutinise ideas and assertions that appear in print. At present there is little Bahá'í literature that attempts to examine in a scholarly way the relationship between the Bahá'í and biblical scripture. Most literature has been apologetic in nature and in a few cases ideas which were never investigated closely have been accepted and perpetuated from one generation of Bahá'í apologists to the next. What is needed is more in-depth study and the development of critical scholarly literature. Then Bahá'í apologists, trying to share and defend the Faith, would have better materials to draw upon.

There are already many popular perceptions in the Bahá'í community about differences between the Bahá'í Faith and Christianity which merit re-examining and more rigorous study. Surely there is a need to develop biblical studies within the Bahá'í community in the same way Islamic studies are now being pursued. Hopefully, the above analysis will generate further discussion and contribute something to the development of biblical studies within the Association for Bahá'í Studies.

Works Cited

  • 'Abdu'l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 2d. ed., 1982.
  • ___. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1975.
  • ___. Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Comp. by the Research Dept. of the Universal House of Justice. Trans. Habib Taherzadeh and a Committee at the Bahá'í World Centre. Haifa, Israel: Bahá'í World Centre, 1982.
  • ___. Some Answered Questions. Trans. L.C. Barney. 4th. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981.
  • Báb, The. Selections from the Writings of the Báb. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1976.
  • Bahá'u'lláh. Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. 3d ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988.
  • ___. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. 2d ed. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. 2d. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976.
  • ___. Kitáb-i-Íqán (The Book of Certitude). Trans. Shoghi Effendi. 2d ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1950.
  • ___. Prayers and Meditations., Trans. Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1972.
  • ___. Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed After the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Comp. the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice. Trans. Habib Taherzadeh and a Committee at the Bahá'í World Centre. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978.
  • Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1985.
  • Lights of Guidance. A Bahá'í Reference File. 2d rev. ed. Compiled by Helen Hornby. New Delhi, India: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988.
  • Parrinder, Geoffrey. Jesus in the Qur'án. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By.Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974.
  • ___. Promised Day Is Come. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980.
  • ___. World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. 2d ed.Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974.
  • Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

End Notes
  1. Since Paul actually speaks of being 'saved' (sózó) through faith it would be more appropriate to ask whether or not Bahá'u'lláh uses the equivalent Persian/Arabic word for saved'. In a few cases, Paul is merely quoting Hebrew scripture: e.g., Acts 13:47=Isa. 49:6; Cor. 6:2=Isa. 49:8/2.
  2. In other tablets, Bahá'u'lláh writes, 'Hearken ye unto My speech, and return ye to God and repent, that He, through His grace, may have mercy upon you, may wash away your sins, and forgive your trespasses' (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 130). He also writes, 'No man can obtain everlasting life, unless he embraceth the truth of this inestimable, this wondrous, and sublime Revelation' (ibid. 183) and 'Whoso hath been re-born in this Day, shall never die; whoso remaineth dead, shall never live' (ibid. 213). This last passage would be extremely difficult to interpret outside the context of biblical/quránic eschatology.
  3. The title 'Saviour' comes from the Hebrew yása' and Greek sótér, terms which can also be translated as 'deliverer' (see New International Version).
  4. See, for example, Titus 3:6; 2 Pet. 2:20; 1 John 4:14.
  5. In both biblical and Bahá'í scripture different terms are used which can be translated as manifestation, revelation, to reveal, make evident, disclose, and so on. In Christian exposition: 'There is a manifestation before all eyes (John 7:4). Jesus discloses the divine reality, the name of God (17:6) and the works of God (3:21; 9:3)' (Kittel, Theological Dict., vol. IX, p. 5). In Latin theology any reference to the glory of God was termed a 'Manifestation of God' (i.e., in the realm of being, indicating a theophany) and Christians have long, and rightly, identified Jesus with the glory of God (Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán 152).
  6. This text could also be translated "I am the Son of God".
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