Short Notes on Bahá’í Belief

by Jack McLean


Judaism, Christianity, Islam

The Abrahamic faiths all hold to foundational beliefs that maintain their centre of gravity. These are called variously beliefs, doctrines, confessions, creeds, dogmas, etc. In Judaism, the great Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages Maimonides (1134-1204 CE) framed his own creed in the form of the famous Thirteen Articles. As Aquinas had done for medieval Christianity, Maimonides used Aristotelian philosophy as a rational basis to elaborate Jewish philosophy (Epstein Judaism 209). Even though Maimonides’s creed was never formally accepted by the synagogue, it did find a place in Jewish liturgy and has been included in the Authorised Daily Prayer Book. Maimonides’s attempt to frame a creed was fiercely rejected, however, by several of his Jewish contemporaries who formulated creeds of their own (“Salvation” 142). To this day, however, Judaism functions without an official creed. In Islam, the Shahada or confession of faith: “La ilaha illa Allah; Muhammad rasul Allah” (There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God) could be taken as a creed.

Within Christianity, doctrines, dogmas and creeds all have the function of preserving in a set or unalterable form statements of belief or confessions of faith. Creeds such as the Apostolicum or Apostle’s Creed were confessions of faith in the early church but creeds later became dogmas that were elaborated in church council. A doctrine is generally any church teaching, while dogmas are those teachings which have defined as being true and authoritative. In the past, creeds and dogmas have played a central role in both the theology and worship of the Christian churches. They derive their authority from the conviction that these religious formulations are truths based on divine revelation.

The formulation of creeds, however, ceased with the Enlightenment, and they could be viewed today as being archaic, although they still reflect some of the fundamental truths of the Christian revelation. While the various Protestant churches retain their own articles, creeds or confessions, in Protestant Christianity appeals to dogmatic authority are based primarily on the revealed truth of scripture, whereas in Roman Catholic Christianity the dogmatic purview is much wider. The church of Rome holds that all of its teachings, not just those set in dogma, are infallibly true, and by the Council of Trent (1545-63), subordinated interpretation of scripture to the church’s authority and elevated unwritten tradition to a status equal with scripture.

The Bahá’í Faith: Teaching and Doctrine

In the Bahá’í Faith, however, neither the three Central Figures of the faith, the Báb (1817-1850), Bahá’u’lláh (1819-1892), nor `Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921), nor its Guardian Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), nor the Universal House of Justice have made any provision for the formulation of dogmas, creeds or confessions as these terms are usually understood. They are, therefore, non-existent in the Bahá’í Faith. While all Bahá’ís adhere to the same commonly accepted core of beliefs, the Bahá’í Faith maintains its unity especially through the power of its covenants which clearly define and limit the functions of authority and interpretation.

One could view, however, the following statement of `Abdu’l-Bahá in His Will and Testament as a fundamental belief, doctrine or confession of faith:

This is the foundation of belief of the people of Bahá (may my life be offered up for them). “His Holiness, the Exalted One, (the Báb) is the Manifestation of the Unity and Oneness of God and the Forerunner of the Ancient Beauty. His Holiness the Abhá Beauty (may my life be a sacrifice for His steadfast friends) is the Supreme Manifestation of God and The Dayspring of His Most Divine Essence. All others are servants unto Him and do his bidding.” (The Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá 19)

It has to be borne in mind, however, that neither the recital of this statement nor any other in the Bahá’í writings is necessary for membership in the Bahá’í Faith. But one of the essential requirements is belief in the stations of the Three Central Figures of the Bahá’í Faith, that of its Guardian and today the Universal House of Justice, conditions which are all outlined in The Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá.

The word “teaching”, moreover, generally replaces “belief” and “doctrine” in the Bahá’í Faith, although the word “doctrine” is not in and of itself objectionable in a Bahá’í context, since the Universal House of Justice has itself referred to the maintenance of “unity of doctrine” within the Bahá’í Faith (Wellspring of Guidance 53). `Abdu’l-Bahá also refers to the “complex matters of religious doctrine” (The Secret of Divine Civilization 26). It is worth noting that the function of the doctrines, dogmas and creeds, in contradistinction to these things per se, have been maintained in the Bahá’í Faith largely through the divinely revealed teachings of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and the interpretive authority conferred by the Bahá’í covenants, authorising ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi to be the sole legitimate interpreters of Bahá’í holy writ.

What the dogmas, doctrines and creeds aimed at preserving were the truths of the Christian revelation, as well as the unity of the body of the faithful, a goal which, as history attests, was to be unfulfilled. The provisions of the Bahá’í covenant, however, with its clear line of succession from Bahá’u’lláh to `Abdu’l-Bahá to Shoghi Effendi and today to the Universal House of Justice, provided for in written testaments, testaments which also lay the framework for the world-wide administration of the Bahá’í Faith, have maintained the unity of the Bahá’í community since its inception in 1844. The founders of the Bahá’í Faith have given the promise, moreover, that the solid provisions of the Bahá’í covenant, as well as the spiritual forces through which it operates are so secure that the unity of the faithful will be maintained throughout the entire Bahá’í dispensation. `Abdu’l-Bahá says, for example “…For firmness in this Covenant will preserve the unity of the religion of God and the foundation of the religion of God shall not be shaken” (The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh 82).

The Bahá’í Faith maintains its “unity of doctrine” (Wellspring 53) through the binding authority of the teachings and laws contained in its voluminous Sacred Writings, as well as through the interpretations of `Abdu’l-Bahá and those of Shoghi Effendi which are “…equally as binding as the Text itself” (ibid 52). To this must be added the explicit prohibition of anyone making a private interpretation of the Bahá’í writings with a claim to divine inspiration, or attempting to create a sect within the Bahá’í Faith. One must also bear in mind the numerous exhortations to observe fellowship, love and unity which are also requirements of being faithful to the Bahá’í covenant. Unity of doctrine is also maintained in the present hour by the “elucidations,” “deductions” or “pronouncements” of the Universal House of Justice. Although the House of Justice was not specifically authorised with the function of interpretation in the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in the absence of a living Guardian, it can make pronouncements on the Word of God and enact legislation as the need arises.

One of the great problems that the doctrines, dogmas and creeds raised for the ministers of Christianity was the need to preserve the immutability of the truths of the Christian revelation as they perceived them, while at the same time recognizing the realities of the temporal changes and developments which were taking place within the Christian community and secular society. Striking this much-needed balance between the immutability of spiritual truth and the ever-changing needs of the community and society has been foreseen, however, in the Bahá’í Faith, through its preservation of the immutability of the Word of God, on the one hand, and its tendency to “elasticity”, on the other hand, as the interpretations of `Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, and the pronouncements and legislation enacted by the Universal House of Justice are applied to future generations.

This elasticity is required by Bahá’í institutions to move the Bahá’í Faith forward as a “living organism” in order to change and adapt the community to “the needs and requirements of an ever-changing society” (letter of Shoghi Effendi, 21 March 1930 in Wellspring 53). This “elasticity” is achieved through the on-going pronouncements of the Universal House of Justice which can amend or abrogate the laws and pronouncements of a previous House of Justice. While the Sacred Writings are so to speak “cast in stone”, as well as the inspired interpretations of `Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, the bane of the dogma of the previous age — its rigid unalterability — is thus avoided in the Bahá’í Faith.

Works Cited

  • `Abdu’l-Bahá. The Secret of Divine Civilization, The. Trans M. Gail and Ali Kuli Khan. 3d ed. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1975.
  • `Abdu’l-Bahá. The Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá. Wilmette: IL: Bahá’í Publishing Committee, 1944.
  • Epstein, Isadore. Judaism. A Historical Perspective. London: Penguin Books, 1959
  • Hirsch, Emmanuel, “Modern Confessions of Faith” in “Creeds”, Encyclopaedia Britannica (1959), Vol. 6
  • Lietzmann, Hans. “Creeds”, Encyclopaedia Britannica (1959), Vol. 6
  • “Salvation”, The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. James Hastings, ed. Vol Xl.
  • The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh. A Compilation. London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1963.
  • Universal House of Justice. Wellspring of Guidance: Messages 1963-1968. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1969.

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