The Validity and Value of An Historical-Critical Approach to the Revealed Word of Bahá'u'llah

By John Hatcher

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #2
Bahá'í­ National Center: Wilmette, Illinois, USA
March 25–27, 1994
(see list of papers from #2)

published in Scripture and Revelation, pages 27-52
© 1997, ‘Irfán Colloquia

    From a Bahá'í perspective, the Manifestations Wield such influence that it would not be exaggerating to say that human history is organized around their appearances. Indeed, Bahá'u'lláh explains that in the station of unity the Manifestations possess for us the authority and power of God. "Were any of the all-embracing Manifestations of God to declare: I am God!' He verily speaketh the truth, and no doubt attach thereto" (The Kitáb-Ígán, P. 178). At the same time, each of the Manifestations forthrightly attributes His Influence and authority, even the very words He utters, to the power of God working through Him. Thus God Instructed Moses what to do and assured Him God would provide the words: 'And you shall speak to him [Aaron] and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do" (Exod. 4:15). Likewise, in explaining the source and authority of His words, Christ stated, "For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak" (John 12:49). Muhammad states that He cannot adapt or change the Qur'an to accommodate the desires of His followers because He Is the channel through which God speaks and not the author of the words: "It is not for me to change it as mine own soul prompteth. I follow only what is revealed to me . . . " (10:16).

    Integral to this relationship between the Prophets and the Divine Will operating through them is the creative process which links spiritual reality to its phenomenal counterpart through the medium of language, the process by which the eternal word alluded in John is tantamount in physical reality to the power and authority of God: 1n the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Of great interest, then, is the process by which revelation occurs, by which the word of God is given explicit form without hesitation, revision, or any of the other processes commonly associated with human artistry.

    It is understandable, therefore, that we might consider whether the various modes and tools of literary criticism are relevant to a study of scripture, or whether the relationship of the believer to the revealed word is purely a matter of inspiration and intuition. In particular we might question the validity and value of an historical-critical approach. That is, do the Manifestations have any personal contribution to make and are they subject to the influences and circumstances that affect human artists, such as the external forces of environment and heredity, or internal conditions such as psychological makeup and physical health?

    In one statement Bahá'u'lláh seems to imply that His only function in this process is to accede to the will of God: "Whenever I chose to hold My peace and be still, lo, the Voice of the Holy Spirit, standing on My right hand, aroused Me, and the Most Great Spirit appeared before My Face, and Gabriel overshadowed Me, and the Spirit of Glory stirred within My bosom, bidding Me arise and break My silence" (qtd. in God Passes By, pg 102).

    But in praising Bahá'u'lláh's revelation of The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Shoghi Effendi states that it "may well be regarded as the brightest emanation of the mind of Bahá'u'lláh (p. 12). a statement which seems to Imply some creative contribution on the part of Bahá'u'lláh.

    Since we are not privy to any exact understanding of ' that relationship, that interplay between the Will of God and the soul of the Prophet, we can only guess about the mechanics of this process. What we can presume Is that for our purposes there is such a precision of alignment that we can make no valid distinctions between the two. We must also conclude that revealed scripture transcends some of the historical-critical considerations that would be normally applicable to the human artist. Perhaps we also Infer that our best approach to studying the revealed works of Bahá'u'lláh Is to couple the tools of objectivist criticism (i.e., a close reading of the text common to the hermeneutical and exegetical study of scripture to discern the levels of meaning available to us), with whatever Insights we might gain from prayer, meditation, and intuition.

    And yet, such a conclusion by no means Invalidates or devalues the application of certain considerations of an historical-critical approach to the revealed works of Bahá'u'lláh. Each Manifestation wittingly and purposefully operates within the context of what Bahá'u'lláh designates as the "station of distinction": 'In this respect, each Manifestation of God hath a distinct Individuality, a definitely prescribed mission, a predestined Revelation, and specially designated limitations. Each one of them Is known by a different name, is characterized by a special attribute, fulfills a definite Mission, and is entrusted with a particular Revelation' (The Kitáb-i-Íqán, p. 176).

    In other words, an historical-critical approach to the revelation of the prophet is not only warranted, it is an essential aspect of their methodology as teachers in an ongoing, integral and organic educational process. A cursory examination of how we can apply the considerations of historical criticism to the revealed works of Baháíuílláh demonstrates at least four levels or strata of information, each successively more precise and revealing: the revealed work of Baháíuílláh (1) as consummating the progress of humankind on the planet, (2) as fulfilling the expectations of those Prophets immediately preceding Him, (3) as relating to the history and integralness of His ministry, and (4) as alluding to particular personages and situations.

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