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Bahá'í Apocalypticism:
The Concept of Progressive Revelation

by Zaid Lundberg

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Chapter 4

IV. Apocalypticism and the Dimensions of Revelation

1. Problems of definition

The study of apocalypticism or revelation is filled with the same enigmas and problems of definition and classification as that of the study of religion itself. However, the study of religion is a much wider and more complex phenomenon than the study of apocalypticism since the former includes the latter. Yet, the two areas seem to be intimately associated with each other and their close relationship is illustrated by the definitions of "revelation" found in two different encyclopedias. For example, Encyclopedia Judaica states that "Phenomenologically, every religion finds its starting point in a revelation."[46] Similarly, Encyclopedia of Religion writes that "The concept of revelation is a fundamental one in every religion that in any way traces its origin to God or a divinity."[47] The first definition is quite broad and universal since it embodies "every religion." The second definition is more specific and exclusive since it limits the origin of revelation to religions which identify a "God or a divinity." Consequently, the association between religion and revelation depends ultimately on how the terms "religion" and "revelation" are defined and operationalized. For example, Karl Barth maintains that Christianity alone possesses a revelation,[48] but Keith Ward, although he upholds Christianity as the only true revelation, includes not only the "world religions" (e.g., Hinduism and Buddhism), but also all "primal religions" (i.e., religions of primal societies) into the category of revelation.[49] The latter view is reminiscent of Nathan Söderblom's distinction between "revealed religion" (uppenbarelsereligion) and "cultural religion" (kulturreligion).[50]

Barth's view could be classified as exclusive in that it excludes all other religions from the phenomenon of revelation. Similarly, Ward and Söderblom's views could be categorized as inclusive since they include other religions into the field of revelation. There is yet a third possible view which can be grouped as universal and which is advocated by a philosopher of religion, John Hick. He states that the "great world traditions constitute different conceptions of, and responses to, the Real from within the different cultural ways of being human."[51] Thus, rather than limiting the origin of revelation to a "God or a divinity," Hick prefers to define it as "the Real." This view is also quite similar to the Sofia Perennis school which emphasize the esoteric and universal aspects of religion.[52] From these different positions it is possible to conclude on the one hand that narrow, or specific, definitions of religion and revelation tend to be exclusive whereas broad, or vague, definitions of religion and revelation on the other hand have a tendency to be more universal.

Even when consulting an English dictionary one finds that the word "revelation" is affiliated with very different meanings: "Act of revealing," "that which is revealed," "divine communication," and "the Apocalypse."[53] The first and third definitions are associated with a process of revelation, whereas the second and fourth definitions are connoted with the content of revelation, or a piece of apocalyptic literature. From an etymological perspective, the term "revelation" is derived from the Latin word reuéláre which means "to draw back a veil."[54] Ward also conveys this meaning in that the "root idea of revelation is the manifesting or disclosing of something which is normally hidden."[55] However, as can be seen from the English dictionary definition above, "revelation" also has a certain Biblical or literal connotation since it is the title of the last book of The New Testament, The Apocalypse according John. This original title is obtained from the Greek word apocalypsis, which means "to uncover."[56]

As was seen in the religious context above apocalyptic ideas are found in very ancient religious traditions and, although the term "apocalypse" has Biblical connotations, this concept did not originate with inception of the Christian tradition. On the contrary, the Judaism has an extensive apocalyptic corpus and tradition, but some scholars maintain that it has been greatly influenced by Zoroastrianism.[57] Further, in the Jewish scriptures there are four various verbs which are used to express the divine act of revelation: glh (to uncover), yd' (to proclaim, make oneself known), nggd (to report), and dvr (which is used for decisive communication on God's part).[58] According to the Encyclopedia Judaica the first form, glh (to uncover), is used only rarely to denote divine revelation. Rather, the Hebrew idea of revelation consists instead of the "manifestation of the invisible God, unknowable to man on his own."[59] In addition, the Arabic word for revelation in Islám is denoted by two different terms or concepts: wahy, (which is derived from the root "to inspire"), and tanzíl (sending down). Moreover, the Arabic term ilhám (inspiration or intuition) signifies a kind of secondary, or indirect revelation, as reflected within the individual believer.[60] Thus, there appears to be some etymological similarity between the terms glh, apocalypsis, and reuéláre in the sense that they all impart the meaning of something being "uncovered" or "disclosed." However, it is also possible to discern that although the three relatively close religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islám) have been referred to, the term "revelation" clearly carries other connotations as well (e.g., "to report," "sending down," "inspire") and may therefore not be defined solely by the etymological Latin root "to unveil."

The problem of definition is even more complex if one examines the "non-Semitic" religious traditions (especially the Indian and Chinese religions), which hardly mentions a concept of revelation. However, there has been published works within the Hindu tradition which use the concept of revelation.[61] Another reasoning that advocates that the Hindu tradition possesses a concept of revelation is the distinction between the Vedas and the Upanishads, which both have the status of being shruti (heard), i.e., "revealed" directly by the gods, or the rishis (seers), and those scriptures which are considered to be composed of men which are labeled smrti (remembered).[62]

In the Bahá'í-religion no clear technical definition of revelation is given, but it is possible to more or less observe all the modes of revelation mentioned above. However, the glh and tanzíl modes seem most prevalent, but such a study is unfortunately beyond the scope of this thesis. Suffice it to say, and as will be seen in this thesis, the terms revelation and religion are often treated synonymously in various Bahá'í-texts.[63]

According to Tord Olsson the technical terms "'apocalypse', 'apocalypticism' and 'apocalyptic literature' have been used rather ambiguously in scholarly literature,"[64] and from the discussion above, it is quite evident that such endeavors can be highly problematic. Yet, although a technical definition will not be provided for this thesis, it is nonetheless necessary to operationalize the terms "apocalypticism" and "revelation." This shall be attempted at the end of this chapter. First, however, two relevant definitions of "revelation" and "apocalypticism" will be reviewed. The Encyclopedia of Religion defines "revelation" more elaborately as:

[ . . .] a free announcement by the divinity. This announcement even goes beyond hierophanies and epiphanies and involves the manifestation of something holy or the rendering apprehensible of a divine depth, inasmuch as it always clearly includes the distinction between revealing subject and revealed object, between self-revealing God and mystery made known.[65]

Here a distinction is made between the subject (God) and the object of revelation. Olsson similarly defines "apocalypticism" as follows:

Apocalypticism in its various aspects is related to a type of world-view which contains ideological premises for belief in the possibility of communication between man and the supramundane world, i.e., that divine secrets or plans relative to the mundane world in the present, past or future, can be revealed to human recipient. These revealed secrets may then refer to such diverse matters as the course of world history from beginning to end, certain epochs in history, eschatological events, and existential problems of human life.[66]

In both definitions, revelation or apocalypticism are seen as an "announcement" or a "communication". However, the second definition does not distinguish between the subject and the object of revelation but rather between "the supramundane world" and man (human recipient). Note also that apocalypticism contains "various aspects." In both passages it is God or the supramundane world which is disclosing itself to the human world through an announcement or communication. Similarly, when discussing the origin of revelation, Ward states that revelation can be defined as "a communication of knowledge by God or by a suprahuman spiritual source."[67] From these and the above attempts of defining "revelation" and "apocalypticism," it can be noted that they all point to a source, or origin, of revelation which is attributed to either a "divinity," "God," a "suprahuman spiritual source," or a "supramundane world." Rather than limiting the definition of revelation with the term "God," one can, in general, state that source or origin of revelation is ultimately associated with a "supramundane" or "transcendental" reality and its relationship to humanity. This "vertical" directionality is developed in the next section.

2. A structural approach to revelation

In addition to defining revelation the Encyclopedia of Religion lists five different criteria (characteristics or factors) of revelation which are used by phenomenologists of religion:[68]

  1. Origin or author
  2. Instruments or means
  3. Content or object
  4. Recipient or addressees
  5. Effect or consequence for the recipient

The above stated criteria suggests a rather complex and dynamic relationship, but these criteria have, for the sake of simplicity and for the purpose of this thesis, been reduced to three fundamental apocalyptic actors: 1) The supramundane reality, sender, or source of revelation (S), (i.e., the origin or author of revelation); 2) The messenger, or mediator of revelation (M); and 3) The receiver(s) or recipient(s) of revelation (R) (i.e., the recipient or addressees). A more elaborated and dynamic model could be devised to include not only the three actors above, but where the Messenger also could be considered as both the receiver (R) and sender (S) of revelation. In addition, the model could be further ramified in that some world religions also describe a level of mediation between the Source (S) and the Messenger (M) such as an angel, archangel, or holy spirit. In this more elaborate model the first level of mediation can be labeled (M1) and the second level (M2). The (M1) level is beyond the scope of this study but could be equated with the areas of angelology or theophanology. The (S) level corresponds in this thesis to Bahá'í-theology and the (M2) level to Bahá'í-prophetology. The content of revelation (C) is, in the scriptural traditions, usually attributed with a canon of sacred literature. The instrumentality, or means, of revelation (I) could be seen as the various modes of revelation mentioned above (glh, yd', nggd, dvr, wahy, tanzíl, and ilhám). These could, in turn, be related to the various levels in the above stated model.[69] Moreover, these different criteria may be applied to illustrate the vertical directionality of the apocalyptic structure within a single religion and/or for comparative purposes as shown below:

Table 1
(did not scan properly, so it's not been included in this online version)

This model is primarily a structural approach to various criteria in the field of apocalypticism and as such it also depicts some general levels or dimensions of revelation. The (M1) or (C) levels have not been included and analyzed in this thesis since areas like Bahá'í-cosmology and Universal and Specific Revelation were more appropriate. Hence, the simplified version of this model has been applied in general, and as will be shown, the Bahá'í-authors both explicitly and implicitly describe Bahá'í-apocalypticism in a similar structural scheme (See Appendix I). Further, as will be shown below, there are supplementary dimensions, or alternate models, which also could be utilized to describe the complex structure of apocalypticism.

Earlier, Olsson defined "apocalypticism" as "divine secrets" which referred to "such diverse matters as the course of world history from beginning to end, certain epochs in history, eschatological events, and existential problems of human life." This could be defined as the "content" of revelation and elsewhere Olsson continues to say that:

[. . .] "apocalypticism" seems to be relevant so far as it raises the question of the content of revelation; if something is revealed or uncovered, it must, of course, be a revelation of things that have been previously hidden, i.e., secrets . . . Apocalypticism is thus defined as revelation of the secrets of the cosmos and/or the invisible, divine world, or as revelation about the end of the world, or as revelation concerning the course of the world's history from creation till the end of time according to a fixed chronological framework, arranging history in particular periods though concentrating on the final phase.[70]

It is interesting that although Olsson speaks about the "content of revelation" he also enumerates several areas which are related to the field of apocalypticism and which points to concepts, structures and dimensions beyond its content. Hence, Olsson clearly emphasizes one of these dimensions — the eschatological dimension — which primarily centers on the horizontal directionality of revelation in that it concerns the temporal, spatial, and causal realms. In the next section some additional dimensions will briefly be discussed.

3. The dimensions of revelation

Above it was noted that religion and revelation were intimately related and it is therefore interesting that Ward, in his Religion and Revelation, applies Ninian Smart's six main dimensions of religion (mythical, doctrinal, ethical, social, ritual, experiential) when classifying the various dimensions of revelation.[71] In like manner, Avery Dulles, in his Models of Revelation, lists five various models which he refers to as: Propositional, Historical, Experiential, Dialectical, and New Consciousness.[72] Although there appears to be some overlap between the two authors' classifications, it is important to note that Ward examines both, what he calls "primal religions," and five scriptural traditions (Judaism, Vedanta, Buddhism, Islám, and Christianity), whereas Dulles only studies models of revelation within the Christian tradition. However, the crucial point here is that both authors categorize the field of revelation into multidimensional models or structures.

It would be possible to adopt either Smart's or Dulles' classifications with respect to Bahá'í-apocalypticism and systematically investigate all the various dimensions or models of revelation. This thesis, however, looks primarily at two of the above mentioned models of revelation, namely the Dialectical Model and the Historical Model. But rather than using these specific terms, since they are not totally compatible, the terms "vertical axis" and "horizontal axis" have been preferred instead. The vertical axis corresponds in general to the structural approach described above and the horizontal axis correlates overall to an historical directionality in revelation. The vertical axis of revelation pertains to the structural relationships between the "supramundane" (S), the "mediator" (M), and "humanity" (R), or the relationship between various "mediators". In other words, this axis is defined as "vertical" since it points beyond the spatial, temporal, causal, and as such it can also be designated as a "transcendental," "essential" or "esoteric" dimension. In contrast, the horizontal axis refers to revelation in a historical and/or eschatological scheme, i.e., to certain fixed chronological frameworks, periods, and cycles. Consequently, this axis focuses within the temporal, spatial, and causal, realms which also can be regarded as an "immanent," "manifest," or "exoteric" dimension. Although this bipolar model suggests that the two axes and dimensions are independent from each other, they are, as will be shown in this thesis, intimately correlated and integrated in the Bahá'í-texts and are essential to a deeper understanding of the concept of progressive revelation.

4. Apocalypticism and revelation operationalized

With the above discussed areas in mind it is now easier to operationalize the terms "apocalypticism" and "revelation." With regard to the term "apocalypticism" Olsson makes the following relevant and useful distinctions:

  1. apocalypticism as a speculative and verbal activity comprising more or less coherent systems of apocalyptic ideas,
  2. apocalyptic ideas which constitute the above systems but are also found in other contexts than apocalypticism, and
  3. apocalypse as a literary type in which apocalyptic ideas or systems of ideas are expressed.[73]

The term "apocalypticism" here described as "a more or less coherent systems of apocalyptic ideas" would in this thesis correspond to the term "Bahá'í-apocalypticism." As will be shown in this thesis, this system (Bahá'í-apocalypticism) does contain numerous apocalyptic ideas. The term "apocalyptic idea" would here correlate to the term "the concept of progressive revelation".[74] This concept is regarded as only one apocalyptic idea of Bahá'í-apocalypticism and consequently not the only one. As was stated in the beginning of this thesis, the primary objective of this study is to show that the concept of progressive revelation is a central concept of Bahá'í-apocalypticism, but not that it is the central concept. Such an investigation could be ventured, but then one would have to take into account all other possible apocalyptic ideas of Bahá'í-apocalypticism as well. The term "apocalypse" is not used in this thesis, but it interesting to note that this expression could correspond to the "content of revelation." Thus, it would here be equated with the (C) level in the structural approach above and in this context it corresponds to the Bahá'í-canon. The term "revelation," although it is etymologically speaking synonymous with the term "apocalypse," refer in this thesis only to either different apocalyptic ideas, structures, or various dimensions within the system of Bahá'í-apocalypticism. The term "revelation" occurs within different contexts of Bahá'í-apocalypticism, e.g., "progressive revelation," "Universal Revelation," and "Special Revelation," and may therefore be connoted with a variety of meanings depending upon the context. In conclusion, the term "Bahá'í-apocalypticism" is operationalized as: a system of dimensions of revelations (apocalyptic ideas) where the concept of progressive revelation is seen as a central concept.


[46] Encyclopedia Judaica, p. 11
[47] Eliade, M. (1987). p. 35
[48] Eliade, M. (1987). p. 35
[49] Ward, K. (1994). p. 5
[50] Söderblom, N. (1930
[51] Hick, J. (1989). p. 37
[52] E.g., Aldous Huxley, Henry Corbin, S. H. Nasr, Frithjof Schuon, Houston Smith et al.; see e.g., Schuon, F. (1984)
[53] Patterson, R. F. (1991). p. 19
[54] Skeat, W. W. (1984). p. 44
[55] Ward, K. (1994). p. 9
[56] Skeat, W. W. (1984). p. 21
[57] See Boyce, M. (1979); Duchesne-Guillemin, J. (1952); Hellholm, D. (1979
[58] Eliade, M. (1987). p. 35
[59] Encyclopedia Judaica, p. 11
[60] Glassé, C. (1989). p. 33
[61] See Murty, K. S. (1959). Revelation and Reason in Advaita Vedánta. The title "Revelation and Reason" seems to be popular in the field of revelation since there has been published two earlier works with a similar title, one in the Christian tradition; Brunner, E. (1947). Revelation and Reason, and one of the Muslim tradition; Arberry, A. J. (1957). Revelation and Reason in Islam
[62] Eliade, M. (1987). p. 36
[63] See e.g., GWB, p. 81; KI, p. 239, p. 24
[64] Olsson, T. (1983). p. 2
[65] Eliade, M. (1987). p. 356, italics added
[66] Olsson, T. (1983). p. 30, italics added
[67] Ward, K. (1994). p.
[68] Eliade, M. (1987). pp. 356-36
[69] It is beyond the scope of this thesis to analyze these various modes of revelation but, as shall be seen in this thesis, the cosmos is seen as the instrument of revelation where "Universal and Specific Revelation" may be viewed as two different means of revelation which also suggests that the (M) level could also be considered an instrument of revelation
[70] Olsson, T. ( 1983). p. 23, italics added
[71] Ward, K. (1995). p. 55 ff; Smart, N. (1971). p. 15f
[72] Dulles, A. (1994). pp. 141-154, pp. 27-2
[73] Olsson, T. (1983). pp. 27-2
[74] In this thesis the term "the concept of progressive revelation" is preferred before the term "apocalyptic idea" since this is how the term is defined in the English Bahá'í-text.
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