What’s the Bible for?

This is the first in a series on Shoghi Effendi’s comments in the The World Order of Baha’u’llah, pages 18-22. In this passage, Shoghi Effendi claims that the Baha’i Faith is superior to Christianity and Islam because its Writings state clearly how the community should be led after Baha’u’llah’s passing, and because they include an abundance of laws and regulations.

…the Edifice which the Fathers of the Church reared after the passing of His First Apostle was an Edifice that rested in nowise upon the explicit directions of Christ Himself. The authority and features of their administration were wholly inferred, and indirectly derived, with more or less justification, from certain vague and fragmentary references which they found scattered amongst His utterances as recorded in the Gospel. …

Had it been possible for the Church Fathers, whose unwarranted authority was thus fiercely assailed from every side, to refute the denunciations heaped upon them by quoting specific utterances of Christ regarding the future administration of His Church, or the nature of the authority of His Successors, they would surely have been capable of quenching the flame of controversy, and preserving the unity of Christendom. …

Unlike the Dispensation of Christ, unlike the Dispensation of Muḥammad, unlike all the Dispensations of the past, the apostles of Bahá’u’lláh in every land, wherever they labor and toil, have before them in clear, in unequivocal and emphatic language, all the laws, the regulations, the principles, the institutions, the guidance, they require for the prosecution and consummation of their task. (WOB 20-21)

The second paragraph above begs a question that I want to come back to in a later post. For now, suffice it to note that Shoghi Effendi believes that the religious text is the basis for religious authority. This comes from an assumption intrinsic to the Baha’i belief system that revelation is a text, a set of words written down, and that a religion is ultimate based on those written words.

In Christianity, revelation does not consist ultimately in a text. In consists of a person, Jesus Christ. It’s true that the Bible is the word of God, but that is only in a secondary sense, in that it points us to the primary revelation of God, and the true Word of God, who is Christ.

Incidentally, we don’t customarily speak of the Bible as revealed by God. We speak of it as inspired by God. There’s a subtle but important difference.

If a text is thought of as revealed (as in the Baha’i Faith), that means that it was transmitted from God to earth by means of a messenger. The text takes its final form by means of a one-way transmission.

Inspiration connotes something different. The text comes into being from an interaction between God and human. Not just a human individual who happens to be holding the pen, but also the community to which he belongs. The books of the Bible were born from an interaction between the Holy Spirit and human agents. It’s a little like sex (much of Christianity is, one way or another), where God is like a father and the human community like a mother. The text is born from both of them, and bears the characteristics of both.

Could that endanger the integrity of the message? No, because the message is always simply, “This is what the Son of God is like.” And the Son of God himself is born of a communion of God and human.

As I’ve said before, one of the three pillars of Christianity is the Incarnation: when God became a human being. This joining of human to divine is at the heart of the Gospel. That is what brings us into eternal life. And the Bible mirrors this by also being a joining of divine and human.

The Bible is not simply a set of regulations for the governance of the Christian community. While it includes some moral teaching, its purpose is not for God to explain to us what to do. It is God showing us who he is, and pointing to his Son, who is the fullest expression of who God is.

Guidance with regard to how to handle particular situations as the ages pass, or detailed instructions as to how to structure the Christian “administrative order” – these are not relevant to the Bible. These issues are handled by a different mechanism, apostolic succession. Apostolic succession, like the Bible, involves an interaction between the Holy Spirit and human agents. It is not based on the Bible. It is based directly on the actions of Jesus Christ. Since the Bible witnesses to the actions of God in history, it witnesses to the establishment of apostolic succession, but apostolic succession was not created because of something someone read in the Bible. More on that in the second installment.

To summarize:

Shoghi Effendi thinks the Christian logic is this: “God inspired the Bible, in which he explained apostolic succession.” Shoghi Effendi then criticizes Christians for reading into the Bible something that isn’t there.

In reality, the Christian logic is this: “God inspired the Bible. God established apostolic succession (i.e. not by means of the Bible).” So Shoghi Effendi’s criticism is irrelevant

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