Christianity from a Bahá'í Perspective
Jesus Christ in History and in the Bahá'í Writings
When one becomes aware of the divergent understandings
of Jesus that existed in the early Christian community, one sees the difficulty
of reconstructing what Jesus's life and teachings really were. One is reminded
of the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. The first generation
of Christians groped to describe Him and to experience Him in worship. What has
survived is a composite not only of the first generation's recollections, but
of their interpretation of Jesus and of their experience of the risen Christ as
well, often edited and assembled into one story by the second generation.
But in the last century scholars have made considerable progress in reconstructing
the life and teachings of Jesus. The discovery of lost books has made it possible
to establish scholarly criteria for determining which information about Jesus
is reliable and which is later interpretation or invention. Scholars focus on
two criteria in particular: information from the oldest sources generally is more
likely to be reliable than information found only in later sources; and information
found in more than one source, if the sources were composed independently of each
other, is more likely to be reliable than information found in one source alone.
The Historical Jesus
Jesus was born of Jewish parents. They, and Jesus's four
brothers (James, Joses, Judas, and Simon) had Hebrew, not Greek names. Thus His
parents were probably not Hellenized Jews, but Palestinian Jews who spoke Aramaic
at home. Jesus probably knew some Greek, but apparently He preached in Aramaic;
the gospels do not mention that He preached in any of Palestine's Greek-speaking
cities. Galilean villages and towns are mentioned frequently in the gospels, so
probably He spent most of His time there. Nazareth, where He probably lived much
of His life, is in southern Galilee.
Before Jesus began His mission He apparently had some sort
of connection with John the Baptist. John was probably slightly older than Jesus,
and supposedly of priestly birth. He was a wandering prophet, traveling throughout
Palestine and trans-Jordan. His principal message was that the Kingdom of God
is coming; this resembles Jesus's proclamation of the rule or kingship of God.
Some scholars suggest that John's baptism of people in the Jordan worried Herod
Antipas; possibly John also reenacted the crossing of the Jordan, which symbolized
entry into and conquest of the Promised Land.
Fearing John's influence might cause rebellion, Antipas had him imprisoned and
John's importance to Christianity is difficult to determine
because so little is known about him and about his relationship to Jesus. John
baptized people and may have introduced that rite to Jesus. Many scholars speculate
that there may have been a connection between John and the Essenes, and that he
was a conduit for influence of the Essenes on Jesus. But this claim is difficult
to substantiate because so little is known of the messages of John and Jesus.
John's influence has persisted to this day; not only is he an important figure
in the New Testament, but a group of people in Iraq, the Mandeans, claim to be
his followers and to be descended from his original followers.
Jesus soon began his own movement, featuring teachings that
were different from John's. In founding his own movement, Jesus seems to have
broken the prevailing models available to Him or His people. He did not conduct
sacrifices, like a priest. He did not experience a divine call or visions, like
an Israelite prophet. He never started a school of thought, like a philosopher.
His interpretation of the Law avoided the legalistic techniques of the Pharisees;
rather, He claimed to proclaim the Will of God directly. His wisdom sayings were
simple and proverbial, not speculative, as was common in the first century.
Jesus spoke constantly of the basileia of God. The
word is often translated kingdom, but its meaning is more like rule, reign, or
kingship. The rule was not apocalyptic and did not involve God's impending judgment,
as John the Baptist stressed. Many scholars believe Jesus did not proclaim that
a messianic figure would come to bring God's rule; in other words, that Jesus
did not promise to return. They draw their conclusions by studying the many different
literary sources about Jesus; the sayings attributed to Jesus where He speaks
about a return are not multiply attested in independent sources. While such a
conclusion may seem startling to Bahá'ís, if this is true it makes Jesus's message
more like Muhammad's, for Muhammad, in the Qur'án, never promised to return and
never spoke of a messianic figure who would come; rather, Muhammad, like John
the Baptist, stressed the time when God would rule and judge (Qur'án 56).
According to some scholars, Jesus primarily proclaimed that
the kingship of God was within each person, or among the believers ("in the midst
of you"; Luke 17:21). He proclaimed the rule of God primarily through parables.
The parables, because they are stories, have been fairly accurately preserved,
but they are extraordinarily difficult to understand. All of the parables involve
an element of surprise; they challenge the hearer. The Kingdom is a kingdom of
nobodies: it is a kingdom for children (Mark 10:13-16; Matthew 18:1-4) and the
poor (Luke 6:20), which rich men will have grave difficulties entering (Mark 10:25).
The kingdom is like weeds that grow and take over a field of wheat (Gospel
of Thomas 57) or like a mustard plant, which is also a noxious weed (Mark
4:30-32). The kingdom involves socially unacceptable behavior (Matthew 13:44).
The parables often challenge the individual to become involved in Jesus, for they
imply that this is the way for an individual to participate in the rule of God.
Many parables illustrate a new human situation, one in which
God demands the whole person; not just obedience, but surrender of the reality
of the person. To put it in Islamic terms, God demands submission of the will
of humans to the will of God. This requires a new form of conduct: radical love,
of one's enemies as well as one's friends; sacrifice of all one's property for
others; doing not just what is necessary, but what is right. Scholars have called
this eschatological ethics (ethics of the eschaton or rule of God).
In additional to talking about the Kingdom, Jesus also demonstrated
it. One of the most important ways He demonstrated it was by eating with anyone;
Jesus observed none of the social conventions that divided rich from poor or upper
class from lower. Scholars refer to such behavior as open commensality.
Jesus's willingness to eat with anyone caused some to complain about those with
whom he associated, and how he ate his meals, prompting Jesus to complain "For
John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son
of man came eating and drinking, and they say 'Behold, a glutton and a drunkard,
a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" (Matt 11: 18-19).
It would seem that he could not win either way.
Scholars are much more cautious in drawing conclusions about
Jesus's miracles than His sayings because the evidence for miracles is generally
less reliable. John Dominic Crossan calculates that while there are as many as
six independent sources for some of the sayings of Jesus, there are never more
than two independent sources describing a particular miracle.
While collections of Jesus's sayings are known, the evidence for a collection
of miracle stories is considerably weaker, and the document is much harder to
reconstruct. The miracle stories also show more evidence of rewriting and reinterpretation,
probably because the Christian community was more embarrassed about them. Finally,
an entire class of miracle storiesnature miracles, involving walking on water,
stilling the sea, and changing water into wineCrossan and some other scholars
think are not historical.
Crossan argues that the reason Jesus performed miracles was to prove the power
of the Kingdom. He called on His disciples to heal peoplea miracle that is relatively
easy to accomplish, since much of human illness has a psychological dimensionin
order to impress on people the power of God's rule and the power of Faith in God.
The Bahá'í authoritative writings are cautious about literal interpretation of
miracles, favoring a "spiritual meaning" to them instead (letter written on behalf
of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, August 14, 1934, in Lights of
Guidance, 3d ed., number 1649).
Jesus did not establish a church or a school of thought to
propagate His beliefs, but He apparently did establish a mission to propagate
His teachings about the Kingdom. He sent his disciples out in twos (Mark 6:7;
Luke 10:1), enjoined them to heal the sick and "eat what they will set before
you" (Gospel of Thomas, 14:1-3)in other words, to practice open commensality.
The various references to the places the disciples should go suggests Jesus sent
them into the Galilean countryside, and thus the mission He established was primarily
to rural Jewish peasantry.
The disciples apparently were to wander as itinerants, and to carry no bread or
money with them on the journey; thus they were totally dependent on the reception
they received at each new village.
Jesus appointed the twelve apostles as a body or group, but
there is no evidence that He meant them to be the leadership body of a religion;
rather, they were to serve some sort of function in the reign of God. Most of
them were from Galilee, and Peter was their leader.
The various places where Jesus visited that are mentioned
in the gospels are almost all in Galilee, strongly suggesting that most of Jesus's
ministry occurred in his home district. The synoptic gospels describe Jesus as
going to Jerusalem only once, at which time He was arrested. According to extremely
early Christian tradition, Jesus celebrated some sort of messianic meal with His
disciples the night before His arrest. Many modern scholars doubt the tradition,
however, because some early Christian sources (such as the Didache, a late
first-century church manual) are unaware of it. It seem more likely that Jesus's
practice of open commensality evolved into the Eucharist instead of Jesus's inauguration
of the Eucharist being forgotten by some Christians.
Jesus was arrested, perhaps because of His preaching about
the Temple or His action against the moneychangers outside the Temple. Since the
Jews did not have the power to execute anyone, they turned him over to the Romans.
He was probably crucified the day before Passover (following John's account instead
of the Synoptic Gospels; it is likely that some sources moved the time of His
arrest so that His last supper could be the Passover meal). The accounts of Jesus's
trial and crucifixion in the four gospels are remarkably uniform in content, but
this apparently is caused by their common dependence on a lost work called by
a few scholars the Cross Gospel. John Dominic Crossan, who is one of the
world's experts on the passion narrative, argues that the disciples probably fled
Jerusalem when Jesus was arrested and thus knew nothing about His trial and crucifixion;
he maintains the entire account was constructed later through careful reading
of the Hebrew Bible and searching for prophecies Jesus fulfilled.
After Jesus's crucifixion, He appeared to His followers as
a resurrected Christ. The resurrection appearances renewed the first Christians
and inspired them to go out and conquer the world for Him.
Many modern scholars doubt that Jesus referred to Himself
as Messiah, or Son of Man, or Son of David, or Son of God, or Lord. We cannot
be sure how He referred to Himself, because quotations that include one title
in one source include a different title in another source.
Jesus in the Bahá'í Scriptures
Modern critical biblical scholarship has reached only a fraction
of modern Christians; for most Christians the various traditional views of Jesus
remain important. Modern biblical scholarship itself is not unified in its view
of Jesus either. Thus, among Christians there exists a very wide range of views
about Jesus Christ. A natural and inevitable question to ask is, where does the
Bahá'í view of Jesus fall within the spectrum of Christian views? To answer this
question one must first consider the descriptives that Bahá'ís and Christians
use to define His station. Some Christians describe Jesus as God Godself. Other
terms they use are "Son of God," "Son of Man," "Lord,"
"Savior," and "Incarnation of God." Another important Christian
approach to understanding Jesus, which is not in the New Testament but is very
ancient, is the Trinity. The Bahá'í Faith uses different descriptives for Jesus,
such as "Manifestation of God" and "Spirit of God." What do
the Bahá'í terms mean? What is the Bahá'í understanding of the Christian descriptives?
Bahá'u'lláh classifies Jesus Christ, Moses, Abraham, Muhammad,
Zoroaster, the Báb, and Himself as Manifestations of God.
To understand the Bahá'í concept of the Manifestation, one must also understand
the Bahá'í concepts of God, creation, and humanity. This is because Bahá'u'lláh
says the Manifestations of God have a twofold station; one is "pure abstraction
and essential unity," not only with each other, but with God as well; the second
is the "station of distinction, and pertaineth to the world of creation, and to
the limitations thereof" (Gleanings, 51, 52). Thus Manifestations are bridges
between a perfect, ineffable, and transcendent God, on the one hand, and a physical
world and humanity on the other. Traditional Christianity views the station of
Jesus in a similar way, for traditionally, Jesus can not save humanity unless
He is part of humanity and part of God simultaneously.
Bahá'u'lláh, like Islam, describes the nature of God by emphasizing
its transcendence. The innermost essence of God is beyond anything we can understand
and experience, because we are limited and God is infinite; we are creatures and
God is the Creator (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 151; 193).
As 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains, the difference between God and humanity is like the
difference between a painter and a painting; just as a painting is incapable of
understanding the painter, so we are limited in our ability to understand our
Creator (Some Answered Questions, 5). This does not deny the reality of
mystical experience; rather, it asserts that however intensely an individual may
experience God's love, God is capable of loving the person even more intensely;
so intensely that the frail human soul would be totally destroyed by the power
of the love. It is in this sense that the Bahá'í writings strongly emphasize God's
The Bahá'í writings add, however, that even though the innermost
essence of God is sanctified beyond our ken, nevertheless humans can know something
about God; this is because God chooses to manifest Godself through attributes.
Examples of attributes would be love; knowledge; compassion; justice; mercy; wisdom;
strength; power; honesty. Bahá'u'lláh, in a prayer, says "I testify that Thou
hast been sanctified above all attributes and holy above all names" (Bahá'í
Prayers, 12), indicating that even God's attributes do not fully express God's
The Christian equivalent to the Bahá'í concept of Manifestation
is the concept of incarnation. The word to incarnate means "to embody in
flesh" or "to assume, or exist in, a bodily (esp. a human) form" (Oxford English
Dictionary). From a Bahá'í point of view, the important question regarding the
subject of incarnation is, what is it that Jesus is supposed to incarnate? Bahá'ís
can certainly say that Jesus incarnated God's attributes, in the sense that in
Jesus, God's attributes were perfectly reflected and expressed. The Bahá'í scriptures,
however, reject the belief that the ineffable essence of the Divinity was ever
perfectly and completely contained in a single human body, because the Bahá'í
scriptures emphasize the greatness and transcendence of the essence of God.
Bahá'u'lláh defines creation and humanity in considerable
detail. He says that on "every created thing He [God] hath shed the light of one
of His names" (Gleanings, 65). In other words, everything reflects an attribute
of God; thus Bahá'u'lláh endorses a major insight of nature mysticism. Bahá'u'lláh
adds that on the human soul, however, God "hath focused the radiance of all His
names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self" (Gleanings,
675). Thus the essence of human beings includes all the attributes of God in potential
form (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 101), and in this sense we are all linked to, and expressions
of, God (though we are separate from the inmost essence of God).
Bahá'u'lláh asserts that the principal bridge between God
and all of creation is the Manifestations of God; individuals in whom all the
attributes of God exist not just potentially, but in whom they are all perfectly
expressed. Manifestations are the mouthpieces of God; the exemplars of God's qualities;
they are God's vicegerents on earth. An analogy for the Manifestations found in
the Bahá'í writings (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 79, 142; Gleanings, 74; Some
Answered Questions, 147-48; Promulgation of Universal Peace, 114-15)
is that they are like perfect mirrors, reflecting the light of the sun so faithfully
that the image of the sun, seen in such a perfect mirror, is indistinguishable
from the sun in the sky. Ordinary human beings, no matter how much they polish
the mirrors of their own souls, can never become perfect mirrors; and nature also,
however much it reflects God's beauty and magnificence, remains an imperfect mirror.
To see God truly, we need to turn to the Manifestations. It is interesting to
note that the mirror analogy was not unknown to early Christians; the great theologian
Origen (185-254), citing the biblical Book of Wisdom, called Christ "the spotless
mirror" of God's workings (Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth
[Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973], 26).
Two philosophical terms might be useful to clarify the twofold
station of the Manifestations that Bahá'u'lláh describes. One is ontology,
"the science or study of being" (Oxford English Dictionary). Ontology pertains
to the nature or essence of things. The other term is epistemology, "the
theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge" (Oxford English Dictionary).
Epistemology pertains to what we can know about things. What we can know about
a thing is not necessarily identical to the thing itself.
One can argue that Bahá'u'lláh is asserting that epistemologically
the Manifestations are God, for they are the perfect embodiment of all we can
know about Godself; but ontologically they are not God, for they are not
identical with God's essence. Perhaps this is the meaning of the words attributed
to Jesus in the gospel of John: "If you had known me, you would have known my
Father also" (John 14:7) and "he who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).
Bahá'u'lláh uses the concept of the twofold station to explain
seemingly contradictory statements in the Qur'án and hadíth about Muhammad:
The first station, which is related to His [the Manifestation's] innermost
reality, representeth Him as One Whose voice is the voice of God Himself. To this
testified the tradition: "Manifold and mysterious is My relationship with God.
I am He, Himself, and He is I, Myself, except that I am that I am, and He is that
He is." And in like manner, the words: "Arise, O Muhammad, for the Lover and the
Beloved are joined together and made one in Thee." He similarly saith: "There
is no distinction whatsoever between Thee [God] and Them [the Manifestations],
except that They are Thy servants." The second station is the human station, exemplified
by the following verses: "I am but a man like you." "Say praise be to my Lord!
Am I more than a man, an apostle?" (Gleanings, 66-67).
The New Testament, similarly, contains statements where
Jesus describes Himself as God, and others where He makes a distinction between
Himself and God. For example, "I and the Father are One" (John 10:30);
and "the Father is in me, and I am in the Father" (John 10:38); but
on the other hand, "the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28); and
"Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18;
Luke 18:19). These statements make sense and do not contradict if one assumes
they assert an epistemological oneness with God, but an ontological separateness
from the Unknowable Essence.
The Christian concept of the trinity arose out of the need
to explain statements such as these. The earliest Christians tended to be "binitarian,"
that is, they stressed the Father and the Son. The third person of the trinity
was added because of the experience of the Spirit in Christian worship and in
order to explain many doxologies and expressions used in worship that included
the Holy Spirit, such as the baptismal formula in Matt. 28:19, "Go therefore and
make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of
the Son and of the Holy Spirit." When the baptismal formula was coined it was
not meant to be a trinitarian statement. Nor did it standardize the views of Christians;
Ignatius, a prominent second-generation bishop (died c. 115) used various formulas
in his writings, such as "Christ God" (Smyr. 10:1), "Son, Father, and Spirit"
(note the order) (Magn. 13:1), and "in honor of the Father, Jesus Christ, and
the Apostles" (Tral. 12:2).
Tertullian, the first great Latin theologian, coined the word trinity about
the year 200 C.E.; the doctrine reached its traditional form by about 325 C.E.
In its most literal formthat God consists of three separate
parts or "persons," a Father, Son, and Holy Spiritthe trinity contradicts the
Bahá'í view that God consists of a single, transcendent, unknowable essence. But
even the most literalistic conception of the trinity can be related to the Bahá'í
concept of God. For example, one could identify the transcendent, unknowable essence
of God as the "Father" part of the trinity. The Son and the Holy Spirit can be
seen as manifestations of the essence and thus are expressions of God's attributes.
'Abdu'l-Bahá, using the analogy of the perfect mirror previously mentioned, endorses
Now if we say we have seen the Sun in two mirrorsone
the Christ and one the Holy Spiritthat is to say, that we have seen three
Suns, one in heaven and the other two on the earth, we speak truly. And if we
say there is one Sun, and it is pure singleness, and has no partner and equal,
we again speak truly. (Some Answered Questions, 114)
This is one Bahá'í explanation of the symbol of the trinity.
There are others, for the concept can be understood in many different ways. When
one examines the concept of the trinity historically one finds that a literal
understanding was not originally intended. The word "person," two thousand years
ago, never meant an individual human being, as it does today. The word is believed
to come from the Latin per, "through" and sona, "sound"; its etymology
refers to the masks that actors in plays frequently wore, which had mouthpieces
in them to amplify the actor's voice. When the actor wished to represent a different
character he put on a different mask or persona. Thus the concept of "person"
in the trinity could also be translated into modern English by words such as "personality,"
"character," "face," or "expression" instead of "person" (Paul Tillich, A History
of Christian Thought, 46-47). The original idea of the Greek theologians was
that God had multiple forms of expression, not multiple individualities, and that
these multiple forms, nevertheless, were one.
When faced with the problem of defining the three personas
in precise terms, the theologians turned to theology by description and analogy.
A good example comes from Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-c. 391): "The Father is
the begetter and emitter; without passion, of course, and without reference to
time, and not in a corporeal manner. The Son is the begotten, and the Holy Spirit
is the emission; for I know not how this can be expressed in terms altogether
excluding visible things" ("The Third Theological OrationOn the Son," 161).
Another place, using the analogy of light, Gregory says God can be comprehended
"out of light" [the Father], as "light" itself [the Son], and "in light" [the
Spirit] ("Fifth Theological OrationOn the Spirit," 195).
It is interesting to note that 'Abdu'l-Bahá takes
this analogical approach to describing the trinity as well. In a tablet He revealed
to an American Bahá'í in 1900, He says:
But as to the question of the Trinity, know, O advancer
unto God, that in each one of the cycles [dispensations of a Manifestation].-.-.
there are necessarily three things, the Giver of the Grace, and the Grace, and
the Recipient of the Grace; the Source of the Effulgence, and the Effulgence,
and the Recipient of the Effulgence; the Illuminator, and the Illumination, and
the Illumined. Look at the Mosaic cyclethe Lord, and Moses, and the Fire
(i.e., the Burning Bush), the intermediary; and in the Messianic cycle, the Father,
and the Son, and the Holy Ghost the intermediary; and in the Muhammudan [sic]
cycle, the Lord and the Apostle (or Messenger, Muhammad) and Gabriel (for, as
the Muhammadans believe, Gabriel brought the Revelation from God to Muhammad,)
the intermediary. Look at the Sun and its rays and the heat which results from
its rays: the rays and the heat are but two effects of the Sun, but inseparable
from it and sent out from it; yet is the Sun one in its essence, unique in its
real identity, single in its Attributes, neither is it possible for anything to
resemble it. Such is the Essence of the Truth concerning the Unity, the real doctrine
of the Singularity, the undiluted reality as to the (Divine) Sanctuary. ('Abdu'l-Bahá,
Tablets from Abdul Beha Abbas to Some American Believers in the year 1900
[New York: New York Board of Counsel, 1901], 9. Note: this is an old translation.)
In addition to discussing Jesus Christ in general terms,
and in terms of the Trinity, the Bahá'í writings discuss Jesus Himself. Jesus's
death on the cross is recognized as an atonement for humanity (God Passes By,
188; Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, 543). Bahá'u'lláh describes Jesus's impact
on the world in very specific terms:
Know thou that when the Son of Man yielded up His breath
to God, the whole of Creation wept with a great weeping. By sacrificing Himself,
however, a fresh capacity was infused into all created things. Its evidences,
as witnessed in all the peoples of the earth, are now manifest before thee. The
deepest wisdom which the sages have uttered, the profoundest learning which any
mind hath unfolded, the arts which the ablest hands have produced, the influence
exerted by the most potent of rulers, are but manifestations of the quickening
power released by His transcendent, His all-pervasive, and resplendent spirit.-.-.-.
He it is who purified the world. Blessed the man who, with a face beaming with
light, hath turned towards Him. (Gleanings, 86)
Bahá'u'lláh states that while all the Manifestations
of God hold an equal spiritual station, they are not equal in terms of the intensity
and potency of their revelations (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 104).
The above suggests that Jesus Christ, the Manifestation who founded what is today
the largest religious community on the planet, had an impact exceeding that of
A Bahá'í View of Jesus's Titles
The Bahá'í writings do not discuss all of the
titles used by Christians for Jesus, but they often imply approaches that Bahá'ís
can take to the titles that are not discussed. A key element in the Bahá'í
approach is the uniqueness of each Manifestation; Bahá'u'lláh says
that each has "a distinct personality, a definitely prescribed station, a predestined
revelation, and specially designated limitations" (Gleanings, 52). Thus
Bahá'ís do not have to recognize the validity of, say, the title
"Son of Man" by attributing it to Muhammad, Bahá'u'lláh, and the
other Manifestations as well. 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 titles.
In the previously quoted passage Bahá'u'lláh
appears specifically to endorse the title "Son of Man" (or "Son of Humanity,"
as some modern Christian theologians prefer to translate it) as referring to Jesus.
Bahá'u'lláh does not say what the term means, and Christian tradition
has been fairly vague about the term's meaning as well. It ultimately comes from
the Book of Daniel, where it refers to the Messiah, and is frequently used in
the Gospels as a title of Jesus. Possibly the title is symbolic of the perfect
humanity that Jesus represented.
"Son of God" is an extremely important title of Jesus for
Christians, so much so that in the minds of many Christians "Son of God" defines
the relationship of Jesus with His Father. But often Christians do not think about
the symbolic meaning of the title; indeed, many seem unaware that the title is
a symbol at all. What does the term "son" mean? Normally, the word has a simple
biological meaning, but that meaning is the very one that cannot apply to the
relationship between God and Jesus, for God does not have genetic material to
confer upon Jesus, nor does God have a body with which He could unite with Mary
to produce a son. Christian theology has long recognized this and has never meant
the term to be understood literally; as the above quote from Gregory of Nazianzus
emphasizes, God begot Christ "without passion, of course, and without reference
to time, and not in a corporeal manner" ("The Third Theological OrationOn
the Son," 161). The Qur'án echoes Gregory's recognition of God's transcendence
when it says "Allah is only one God. Far is it removed from His transcendent majesty
that He should have a son" (Qur'án 5:171). 'Abdu'l-Bahá explained
that the term "Son of God" referred to the fact that Christ "found existence through
the Spirit of God" (Some Answered Questions, 63). Thus the term is symbolic
of Christ's connection to the divine.
"Son of God" has been interpreted in many other ways by Christians
and Bahá'ís as well. One possible meaning of Son, rejected early
by the mainstream of Christian theology, was the "adoptionist" interpretation;
that Jesus was an ordinary man, "adopted" by God as His Son. The Bahá'í
writings would also seem to reject this approach, since they do not see Manifestations
of God as ordinary human beings; rather, the Bahá'í writings say
that Manifestations are preexistent, in contrast to ordinary human beings, whose
souls come into existence at the moment of conception. Manifestations are indeed
unique creations of God, as the word "begotten" attempts to convey; it describes
Jesus's mode of creation through an analogy with the physical world, an analogy
that Gregory of Nazianzus, by qualifying the word in the above passage, admits
has its limitations.
Another symbolic interpretation of the term "Son" would be
to argue that Jesus was the "spiritual" Son of God. One could say that all humans,
Jesus included, are "sons" of God in the sense that all were created by God. This
is true, but it undercuts the uniqueness of the title's application to Christ,
perhaps unnecessarily, and undercuts the distinction that Bahá'ís
would make between Jesus Christ and creation.
Another approach is exemplified by a statement on behalf
of Shoghi Effendi that the meaning of the title "Son of God" is
entirely spiritual, and points out 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, as they all reflect
His light, though not in an equal measure, and this difference in reflection is
due to the conditions and circumstances under which they appear (letter written
on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, November 29, 1937, in Lights
of Guidance, 3d ed., number 1644).
The above statement on Shoghi Effendi's behalf
uses the term "Son of God" in a specific way, and perhaps does not preclude the
possibility that Bahá'ís could also
acknowledge the term as a title referring
solely to Jesus, in the sense that perhaps He exemplified "sonship" uniquely,
just as Moses, the "friend of God," exemplified a different sort of relationship
The term "Savior" is another Christian title for Jesus.
It is also used in the Bahá'í scriptures for Him ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation
of Universal Peace, 62, 211). A savior must save one from something; in the
physical world one can be saved from a physical disaster, such as drowning or
a sickness; in the spiritual realms one is saved from the spiritual disaster of
ignorance of oneself, of God, and of God's laws. Bahá'u'lláh makes it clear that
"salvation," in the term's broad sense, is the purpose of all the Manifestations
The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him
Who is the Day Spring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth
the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of His creation. Whoso
achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof,
has gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth
every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent
glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These
twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other. Thus hath
it been decreed by Him Who is the Source of Divine inspiration. (Gleanings,
This passage states that acceptance of the Manifestation
of God, and obedience to His laws, are crucially important to one's spiritual
growth; thus one could argue that acceptance of and obedience to the Manifestation
An ingenious, though personal, interpretation of the term
salvation was offered by Thornton Chase, the first American Bahá'í. Chase began
with 'Abdu'l-Bahá's discussion of the five kinds of spirit. Plants possess the
vegetable spirit, which consists of the power of growth; animals possess the animal
spirit, which includes growth and perception; humans possess the human spirit,
which includes growth, perception, and cognition. Above these three is the "heavenly
spirit" or the "spirit of faith," which 'Abdu'l-Bahá calls "the power which makes
the earthly man heavenly, and the imperfect man perfect" (Some Answered Questions,
144). Fifth is the Holy Spirit, "the mediator between God and His creatures" (Some
Answered Questions, 145). Chase argues that when a person acquires the fourth
spiritan acquisition which occurs when the Word of God is accepted into one's
heart and works a transformation in one's soulthen the person has experienced
salvation. This, he says, is what is meant by the phrase "ye must be born again"
(John 3:7). (Thornton Chase, The Bahai Revelation [Chicago: Bahai Publishing
Society, 1910], 119-21).
Thus Bahá'ís would not claim that only Jesus offered salvation
to humanity; all the Manifestations convey salvation, through their words and
through their sacrifice. In this sense all Manifestations could be termed a "Savior."
American Bahá'ís frequently apply the title to Bahá'u'lláh in their songs, and
Shoghi Effendi refers to Bahá'u'lláh as "Savior of the whole human race" (Promised
Day is Come, 114).
Bahá'ís would also apply the title "Lord," which Christians
apply to Jesus, to any Manifestation, including Bahá'u'lláh. "Lord" is a title
of respect in the English language that is applied not only to Jesus, but to kings,
nobility, masters, and others. The term kyrie in Greek had a similarly
wide range of uses.
Modern Christians sometimes use passages from the New Testament
as titles or descriptives of Jesus. Perhaps the best example would be John 14:6,
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by
me." Bahá'ís would not reject this passage from the Gospel of John, but they would
interpret it differently than most Christians. Two possible approaches come to
mind. One would be to examine the word "I"; to whom is Jesus referring? To Himself,
certainly, but could He not be referring to all Manifestations in general, since,
as Bahá'u'lláh explains, one of the stations of the Manifestations is "pure abstraction
and essential unity" (Gleanings, 51)? Thus, Jesus's statement would never
have been meant to exclude the other Manifestations, especially not Himself when
He returnedthat is, in the person of Bahá'u'lláh. A Christian theologian, John
Hick, has also recognized the ambiguity of "I" and has suggested that the "I"
refers not to the historical Jesus, but to the eternal logos manifested in Jesus.
In Bahá'í terms, Hick is suggesting that the "I" refers to the holy spirit common
to all the Manifestations, or to their station of unity.
One could also examine the word "am." The verb to be
has many usesthe Oxford English Dictionary lists 24some of which are normally
distinguished from each other only by context. One grammatical usage is the universal
present, which is used to make statements that are always true, such as "triangles
are three-sided." Another usage applies to the present, but may not apply to the
future as well, such as "I am young" or "I am alive." Christians usually understand
the statement "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," as a universal present,
but could it not be meant to apply only to some period of time in the past? Could
not Abraham have been the way, truth, and life for the peoples of the Middle East
from 2000 B.C.E. to the time of Moses; then Moses was the way, truth, and life
until the time of Jesus; then Jesus was the way, truth, and life until the time
of Muhammad; and then Muhammad was the way, truth, and life until the time of
the Báb; and the Báb was the way, truth, and life until the time of Bahá'u'lláh?
Similarly, Bahá'u'lláh will be the way, truth, and life until He is superseded
by another Manifestation, which He assures us will occur in a thousand years or
more (Gleanings, 346).
In summary, Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Bahá'ís, do
not reject the uniqueness of Jesus Christ; on the contrary, they respect, love,
and emphasize it. However, they seek to balance that uniqueness by recognizing
the uniqueness of other Manifestations of God as well. The balance is achieved
by seeing Manifestations as perfect expressions of the divine will and purpose
to the people of their places and times. They bring eternal and unchanging religious
teachings to the people as well as principles designed for the society to which
they minister. Jesus, thus, is seen by Bahá'ís as divine, as the Son of Man and
the Son of God, and as the way, truth, and life to His world. Ironically, this
is more than many Christians believe about Jesus; Bahá'ís often find themselves
defending the station of Christ to individuals who claim to be His followers.
The Bahá'í view of the station of Jesus falls near the middle of the spectrum
of views that Christians hold, and claims to understand Jesus in a way fitting
to our modern, pluralistic, and historically-minded world.
Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of as Mediterranean Jewish
Peasant (San Francisco: Harper-San Francisco, 1991), 231-32.
version of the saying may be found in Luke 7:31-34. While scholars think the saying
is a genuine, some doubt the phrase "son of man" is original.
The Historical Jesus, 310-11.
The Historical Jesus, 396-98.
The Historical Jesus,336-38.
The Historical Jesus, 339-40.
The Historical Jesus, 367-94.
this list, 'Abdu'l-Bahá added the Buddha; Bahá'u'lláh does not seem to have mentioned
eastern Asian religions at all. A letter written by Shoghi Effendi includes Krishna
as a manifestation of God.
is interesting to note that 'Abdu'l-Bahá refers to some attributes as essential
to God's nature, such as preexistence (Some Answered Questions, 148-49).
But which attributes are essential? It would seem that the definition of the word
God necessitates that God be all-powerful and omniscient; therefore one could
argue that these are qualities of God's inmost essence. But can God choose whether
or not to be loving and compassionate, and remain God? Is it a necessary part
of God's essence that God be loving? Questions such as these await the thought
of Bahá'í philosophers and theologians. An excellent foundation for study of them
has been laid by Juan Ricardo Coles' Concept of Manifestation in the Bahá'í
Writings, in Bahá'í Studies, vol. 9 (Ottawa: Association for Bahá'í
writings of Ignatius are available in Cyril C. Richardson, ed. trans., Early
Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 87-120).
of Nazianzus was one of the three great Greek theologians who, after the Council
of Nicaea, defined the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in trinitarian
terms acceptable to virtually all Christians. He is considered one of the great
fathers of the Greek church and is highly respected by all Christian traditions.
A selection of Gregory of Nazianzus's writings may be found in Edward Rochie Hardy
and Cyril C. Richardson, eds., Christology of the Later Fathers, in The
Library of Christian Classics, Ichthus edition (Philadelphia: Westminster