Bahá'u'lláh freely uses a variety of different forms of interpretation to explain specific passages found in different categories of sacred texts. However, in some instances He rejects interpretations that rely on these same methods. For example, He may reject the literal interpretation of some prophecies while accepting the literal interpretation of other prophecies. Moreover, in many instances He indicates that more than one method of interpretation is applicable for understanding a single passage. How then can an interpreter determine when one or more methods of interpretation are applicable or inapplicable to a specific verse in the Scriptures?
The answer to this question appears to be the knowledge of God's nature as primarily revealed through the Manifestations of God. In other words, a sound theology is essential to correct interpretation. Examples of this relationship between theology and interpretation can be found in Bahá'u'lláh's Book, the Kitáb-i-Iqán (The Book of Certitude). As the title and explanations in the book indicate, the purpose of the book is to enable the religious seeker to attain certainty in religious faith and understanding, both with regard to the recognition of God's Manifestations and the interpretation of sacred texts. In this paper the role of theology in Bahá'u'lláh's interpretations will be explored by first presenting some of the basic characteristics of His theology as expressed in the Kitáb-i-Iqán and then by examining specific examples of interpretation found in Bahá'u'lláh's own Writings. Finally, a type of distinction between theological truth and historical truth will be briefly considered.
This suggests that there may be numerous ways to interpret a Scriptural passage or verse, all of which can legitimately be considered correct, but the strength of any given interpretation would depend on whether or not it consciously or unconsciously yielded meanings that reflect the true reality of God's nature. If this is a valid assessment then it may provide us with a type of theological principle for interpreting Scripture, which can be stated as follows: In order for Scripture to be interpreted appropriately, it must be seen from the point of view of God's attributes. Viewing Scripture from this point of view is what is understood in this paper as the meaning of Bahá'u'lláh's statements wherein He say we should try to see with "the eye of God". The more an interpreter has some conscious or intuitive knowledge of God, the more he or she can see Scripture with the eye of God. Before looking at specific examples of interpretation in Bahá'u'lláh's own writings, it may be helpful to state what is understood in this paper by attributes of God.
Bahá'u'lláh explains that God is exalted beyond "every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress", above "all separation and union, all proximity and remoteness" (Kitáb-i-Iqán 98). These statements suggest that the reality of God is essentially incommunicable. We cannot know or accurately imagine God's true reality in its complete essence apart from the realization that He is entirely outside the limitations of corporeal existence, that is, the plane of time and space (created existence). However, through the primal act of creation, God has provided a channel by which human beings can attain knowledge of what can be most appropriately attributed to His nature: hence, the attributes of God.
However, any given attribute, such as mercy, power, or love, is only attributable to God's nature when it is in its purest, highest and most perfect state. For example, love of one's country can be a reflection of God's love (so to speak), but if this love excludes the love of other countries it falls short of God's all-encompassing nature, and hence fails to reveal God truly or fully. Thus different levels or stages of revelation exist. The more a attribute, such as love, grace, or power, transcends the limitations of corporeal existence - that is, the more it is beyond ascent and descent, egress and regress, above all separation and union, all proximity and remoteness - the more it reveals the nature of God, and thus becomes an attribute of God. This is the most essential point concerning theology as understood in this paper. It is this point that effects most directly how one interpretation is distinguished from another as being more theologically sound.
Bahá'u'lláh distinguishes between three stages of divine revelation (God Passes By 139). The first stage involves all created things, "all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them" (ibid. 102). The second stage involves "man" - i.e., humankind - "for in him are potentially revealed all the attributes and names of God" (ibid. 101). The highest stage involves God's appointed Mediators of His truth, that is, the Prophets and Messengers of God, "of all men, the most accomplished, the most distinguished and the most excellent are the Manifestations of the Sun of Truth [God]" (ibid. 103). Those persons that Bahá'u'lláh refers to as "Manifestations of the Sun of Truth", are in His words so perfect as to be, "expressions of Him Who is the Invisible of the Invisibles" (ibid. 103), so much so, that were any of them to say, " 'I am God!' He verily speaketh the truth, and no doubt attacheth thereto" (ibid. 178).
Thus, God is revealed in creation according to the relative capacities that exist within the different levels of creation. In other words, all created things are relative expressions of God's nature; however, the more something is able to, and actually does, express attributes that are all-embracing and transcendent, the more that created thing manifest the nature of God. Since those persons Bahá'u'lláh refers to as Manifestations of God reveal God to the most perfect degree possible in their lives and words, the record of their ministries and teachings must also be a channel for the revelation of God's nature.
All these points relate to interpretation of sacred Scriptures because Scripture is revelation of God; the meaning of revelation being to reveal. Hence, it seems to follow that for any written texts to be identifiable as a Revelation of God it must in some way reveal God or reflect what can be identified as relating to His character and will. This basic point suggest that any interpretation that fails to reflect or see within authentic Scripture something attributable to God is probably contrary to the underlying nature and intent of Scripture. Said more concisely, if the interpretation fails to discover in the sacred Scriptures what is most befittingly attributable to God it is likely to be in some way a deficient interpretation. This point also indicates that a flawed vision, (i.e., one that is impaired by attachments and imperfections) will be incapable of recognizing or understanding authentic Revelation.
Usually the error of literalism appears to involve confusing the symbol in some way for the spiritual reality that it represents. Thus, the sky above us becomes heaven, and the Kingdom of God becomes exclusively a material place and not the reign of God in the hearts of the believers. This confusion and inclination toward literalism is sometimes the outcome of a general unawareness of the nature of God and in other cases it is enticed in the mind of the interpreter by the interpreter's own material desires and vanity. For example, the interpreter may imagine that God's promised Kingdom is to be limited to a material kingdom while unaware that such an interpretation places unbefitting limits on God's sovereignty, or out of material desire believe that a material kingdom is the only true type of kingdom worthy of the promise of Scripture. Equally, out of vanity, the interpreter may believe the prophecies concerning the day of judgement mean that all the people God will judge to be in error are none other than the people who differ from his or her own school of thought, race, or nation. It seems that the more attached the interpreter is to his or her own self or the material world the more likely the interpreter is to fall into these errors. Since literalism is so prone to yielding a materialistic meaning there may be a correlation between a prevalence of the approach at times when a culture itself becomes especially materialistic.
Since Scripture uses symbols to convey truths that reflect the transcendent reality of God, it follows that Scriptural symbols have meanings not bound by any particular limited contexts. This depth of meaning can be seen in the many ways Bahá'u'lláh will apply the basic spiritual meaning of one symbolic interpretation to different circumstances. For example, Bahá'u'lláh indicates that the words of many of Jesus' prophecies are applicable to both Muhammad and Bahá'u'lláh, presumably because He regards Muhammad and Himself as signifying the same divine Reality. This is demonstrated in His application of a particular passage from Jesus' Olivet discourse (i.e., Matt. 24). In one instance He applies the passage to Muhammad and then in another He applies the same passage to Himself. In the Kitáb-i-Iqán He directly explains that some passages contain a message that is applicable to more than one circumstance, which makes its meaning archetypal in nature. This is demonstrated in His explanation of Jesus' prophecies concerning the tribulation or oppression when He says, "This 'oppression' is the essential feature of every Revelation. Unless it cometh to pass, the Sun of Truth will not be made manifest." This means that this prophecy about oppression (i.e., spiritual oppression, ibid. 31) is applicable to, and fulfilled in, every age.
Nevertheless, despite Bahá'u'lláh's emphasis on symbolic interpretation and His rejection of certain literal interpretations, He does not appear to be asserting that all prophecies should always be interpreted symbolically. This point is established by the fact that Bahá'u'lláh Himself interprets many prophecies literally. For example, He teaches that certain prophecies have been literally fulfilled in the ministries of Muhammad, the Báb, and Himself. This seems to indicate that prophetic statements do not inherently form a category of Scripture that preclude or solely necessitate either a literal or symbolic interpretation.
Moreover, His own use of literalism indicates that it can be used in a way that is God-centred. This is demonstrated in a number of instances where Bahá'u'lláh interprets prophecies literally for the purpose of guiding people to the truth of His own ministry. For example, He interprets David's reference to the "strong city" (Psalm 60:9) to be a reference to the fortress city of 'Akká where He was imprisoned. It is possible that owing to the limited understanding of His audience that, in this instance, He chooses to provide a seemingly literal interpretation even though the words of the prophecies can convey an understanding broader in spiritual meaning and equally applicable to His ministry.
Bahá'u'lláh's acceptance and rejection of literal interpretation is not restricted to the category of prophecy but can also be seen in His interpretation of other categories of sacred texts. For example, in some instances He interprets biblical narratives from the Bible in both a literal and a symbolic manner, such as the star of Bethlehem. In the case of the star of Bethlehem, He has applied a literal approach to a portion of the narrative that contains what are most likely to be purely symbolic or mythological elements and a literal reading of the texts is implausible in a strict material and historical sense.
Even less within the realm of historical possibility is His seemingly literal exegesis of the "deluge" (Noah's flood), which is used to explain the disappearance of ancient documents. If we understand His use of the term "deluge" to be ultimately based not on the literal symbol, but on what it signifies - i.e., the divinely ordained consequences of turning away from God - Bahá'u'lláh's exegesis is entirely reasonable. Seen in this way, His reference to the flood is also consistent with the other numerous instances where ancient symbolic terms appear in Bahá'u'lláh's Writings.
In most cases terms, such as Satan, Heaven, Hell and so on, are used without any explanation of what they may symbolize. In some cases His use of such traditional symbols has at least the appearance of being literal, while in other Writings He gives fuller explanations indicating or suggesting their actual symbolic meaning.
In this way He has revealed different verses in the sacred texts, each of which conveys a meaning appropriate for the varying perspectives and levels of human under-standing. His purpose appears to be to guide people to spiritual truth in a way that they will be most receptive to, or that is within their ability to appreciate or respond to. This may be why He expounds on the sacred texts in a way that is or can appear literal, making such forms of literalism one of the legitimate ways of conveying meaning or truth from the Scriptures.
As already noted, Bahá'u'lláh indicates that the words and verses of many prophecies can contain multiple meanings. This is also true with regard to sacred narratives. In some particular instances it is clear that the multiple meanings are derived from the archetypal nature of certain historical narratives. In this context "archetype" is used to mean a symbol or Scriptural motif that signifies a recurrent spiritual condition or event, that is, it can be understood as representing some truth or occurrence that repeats itself or has some eternal meaning.
An example of an archetypal interpret-ation of Scriptural narrative, similar to the approach that can be observed in the writings of St Paul is apparent in how He equates Himself with such persons as Joseph and Jesus Christ. This approach is fundamental to how He explains the concept of "return." Other archetypes can be seen in many instances where He removes a term from a geographical context and puts it in a spiritual context, such as in the phrases "the Párán of the love of God" (ibid. 11) or "the Bush of love, burning in the Sinai of the heart" (ibid. 61). In this way Bahá'u'lláh seems to be transforming Scriptural narrative, by bringing it out of the realm of past history and placing it in the true domain of sacred history where its meaning is eternally applicable and ever-present in the life of the believer. The meaning is, like the eternal realm of God, exalted above the limitations of time and place. His interpretations generally present a message from Scripture that is always relevant for every seeker and applicable to some degree in every age.
In fact, Bahá'u'lláh's entire recounting of sacred histories, such as the ministries of Noah, Moses, Christ, does not appear to be solely an attempt to put forth objective evidence, but rather to demonstrate very general archetypal patterns in humankind's response to God. In retelling these stories, Bahá'u'lláh does not appear to place importance upon separating mythological or symbolic elements from actual historical events, but rather continues the process of transforming historical narratives into living symbols as a way of conveying spiritual insight and awakening the religious experience of the seeker.
Nevertheless, Bahá'u'lláh's acceptance of the symbolic interpretive approach does not preclude its rejection in certain cases. This indicates that seeing Scripture in a symbolic way will not inevitably lead the interpreter to the truth. An interesting example can be seen in the following excerpt:
... in the traditions the terms "sun" and "moon" have been applied to prayer and fasting, even as it is said: "Fasting is illumination, prayer is light." One day, a well-known divine came to visit Us. While We were conversing with him, he referred to the above-quoted tradition. He said: "Inasmuch as fasting causeth the heat of the body to increase, it hath therefore been likened unto the light of the sun; and as the prayer of the night-season refresheth man, it hath been compared unto the radiance of the moon." Thereupon We realized that that poor man had not been favoured with a single drop of the ocean of true understanding, and had strayed far from the burning Bush of divine wisdom. We then politely observed to him saying: "The interpretation your honour hath given to this tradition is the one current amongst the people. Could it not be interpreted differently?" He asked Us: "What could it be?" We made reply: "Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets, and the most distinguished of God's chosen Ones, hath likened the Dispensation of the Qur'án unto heaven, by reason of its loftiness, its paramount influence, its majesty, and the fact that it comprehendeth all religions. And as the sun and moon constitute the brightest and most prominent luminaries in the heavens, similarly in the heaven of the religion of God two shining orbs have been ordained - fasting and prayer. 'Islam is heaven; fasting is its sun, prayer, its moon.' " (Kitáb-i-Iqán 39-40)
In this instance Bahá'u'lláh rejects the religious leaders interpretation even though he has interpreted light as a symbol. The error appears to stem from the fact that material light is seen as a symbol for another material phenomena, in this case, the material heat of the body, supposedly arising from the act of fasting. The interpretation never goes beyond the material limitations of this world nor does it offer any significant spiritual guidance for the soul.
This example concerning fasting is only one of many instances where a theological vision seems to be a touchstone for an interpretation that extends beyond the attempt to understand eschatological passages and sacred narrative. It shows an application affecting the broader scope of Scripture. Another example can be seen in Bahá'u'lláh's commentary on verse 4:45 of the Qur'án. The Muslims rejected the Gospel because it seemed to them to contain an insufficient amount of references to Muhammad. According to Bahá'u'lláh, this was a mistaken impression. In reality, the Muslims had failed to understand the eschatological language of Christ. This failure to understand the prophetic verses of the New Testament then led them to interpret incorrectly non-prophetic verses in the Qur'án. They came to believe that Muhammad's accusation that the Christians and Jews had corrupted the Bible (e.g., Qur'án 4:45) meant they had altered the actual words in the physical texts of the Bible, especially any references that might have referred to Muhammad. This interpre-tation implied that Jews and Christians could not see the truth of Muhammad because some Jewish and Christian leaders had removed the necessary guidance.
Bahá'u'lláh rejects this interpretation of Muhammad's statements about corruption of the texts on the basis of a number of arguments both objective and theological. But His strongest denunciations of this traditional interpretation of the Qur'án appear to be theological in nature. He first argues that such an interpretation is entirely false in that the inspiration of the actual texts is clearly evident in how the Bible reveals God. He then further expands His theological argument by adding that it is against God's loving providence to allow the primary source of guidance God has provided to disappear before the appearance of Muhammad. Here again, beyond the domain of prophecy, Bahá'u'lláh's statements suggests that the merits of any given interpretations can be evaluated theologically according to whether or not it adequately reflects the nature of God; that is God's love, grace, compassion, and so on.
The laws of Bahá'u'lláh are the only category that fall within a single interpretive approach; that being literal. However, even here one person's literal interpretation may differ from another person. Thus to some extent, the theological principle also must apply to the interpretation of revealed Law. This can be seen in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's interpre-tation of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas wherein Bahá'u'lláh appears to permit bigamy. Pointing out that bigamy is conditioned on justice, and as justice in such a marriage arrangement is impossible, 'Abdu'l-Bahá states that bigamy is therefore not permissible.
In the absence of theology (in this particular case, the ruling principle of God's justice) 'Abdu'l-Bahá's interpretation might seem unwarranted and outside Bahá'u'lláh's original intention. However, in light of how this same theological approach seems to be contained in Bahá'u'lláh's own interpretations it is completely consistent and even plausible to argue that it was entirely within the original intention of the sacred texts. In fact, it may be arguable that any other interpretation would be neither consistent nor probable.
These exegetical examples suggest that there is no simple way to correspond a literal or symbolic approach by delineating distinct provinces of Scripture, such as history, prophecy and so on. Each method of interpretation can potentially be used correctly or incorrectly. Hence, there is no single method of interpretation that will in itself always uncover the truth of the sacred texts. No method can be exclusively applied by fallible human beings to all the Scriptures or even a single category of Scripture without some risks of error. The soundness of every interpretation rest on its theology - that is, how much it reflects an understanding of the attributes of God such as grace, love, wealth, power, glory, justice, and sovereignty - and that an absolutely infallible understanding of theology is outside the human reach.
From a historical and literary point of view, it appears that Scripture, Biblical, Qur'ánic, and Bahá'í, contains a variety of stories, myths and ideas derived from a number of sources that are of doubtful historical truth and authenticity in the objective sense. From a theological point of view, however, it seems reasonable to argue that the modern emphasis on the literary and historical analysis and interpretation of sacred Scripture has not always given appropriate consideration to the true nature of Scripture and its real means of composition. The stories Bahá'u'lláh refers to, such as Noah and the flood, while not real in the objective historical sense, refer to what is real in the spiritual sense, and this spiritual reality is the most appropriate measure of its truth.
Bahá'u'lláh appears to anticipate the critics of our secular age with this warning: "Weigh not the Book of God with the standards and sciences as are current amongst you . . . the measure of its weight should be tested according to its own standard" (Synopsis 22). The divine inspiration of a story or any written or oral tradition pertains to the spiritual meaning and purpose that is "breathed" into what, in many instances, were originally fragments of collected information. Because the substance of such stories is spiritual their "truth" and spiritual "authenticity" can only be evaluated and correctly ascertained by spiritual criteria. This provides a type of definition of what real truth is in a religious context. And, in this context it is separate and independent of objective historicity.
While some Scripture is judged by scholars to be historically accurate, historical verification of Scripture is generally beyond the direct reach of the individual seeker, and therefore from a religious point of view it seems inconceivable that it could ever be regarded as a necessary criteria of faith. Moreover, because past material events are outside the realm of personal verification they cannot be substantiated with complete certitude. The spiritual truth of Scripture however, can always be verified with certitude in the religious experience of the seeker.