God's Promise of Infallibility to the Universal House of Justice in the Enactment of Legislation
Bahá'u'lláh revealed the basic laws for His Dispensation and ordained the Universal House of Justice to pass subsidiary laws "regarding those things which have not outwardly been revealed in the Book". (TB 68) With these words, Bahá'u'lláh promises divine guidance to the Universal House of Justice in the legislative process: "God will verily inspire them with whatsoever He willeth, and He verily is the Provider, the Omniscient." (TB 68) Likewise, `Abdu'l-Bahá promised in His Will that the Universal House of Justice would be under "the care and protection" of Bahá'u'lláh, and under "the shelter and unerring guidance" of the Báb. (WT 11) In the Second Part of His Will, `Abdu'l-Bahá promised that the decisions of the Universal House of Justice functioning with only its elected membership, whether unanimously or by majority vote, would be "the truth and the purpose of God Himself," (WT 19) a subject which is more fully discussed here.
In his letter "The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh," which he describes as "an invaluable supplement" (LDG1 65) to the Covenants of Bahá'u'lláh and of Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi elucidates the above verse from Bahá'u'lláh. Please note that in the last sentence of this passage, Shoghi Effendi specifically links Bahá'u'lláh's promised guidance to the House of Justice, to the elected membership of that body, making clear that this promise is not only by virtue of the presence of the Guardian on that body:
They are to follow, in a prayerful attitude, the dictates and promptings of their conscience. They may, indeed they must, acquaint themselves with the conditions prevailing among the community, must weigh dispassionately in their minds the merits of any case presented for their consideration, but must reserve for themselves the right of an unfettered decision. "God will verily inspire them with whatsoever He willeth," is Bahá'u'lláh's incontrovertible assurance. They, and not the body of those who either directly or indirectly elect them, have thus been made the recipients of the divine guidance which is at once the life-blood and ultimate safeguard of this Revelation. (WOB 153)There are two additional points I wish to draw to the reader's attention, in this statement by Shoghi Effendi. The first is that the promised divine guidance comes to the elected members of the Universal House of Justice through "the dictates and promptings of their conscience." The second is that Shoghi Effendi characterizes this guidance to the Universal House of Justice as "the life-blood and ultimate safeguard of this Revelation."
Shoghi Effendi described the institution of Guardianship as the “pivot” of the Master's Will and Testament (MBW 148) and as the “head cornerstone of the Administrative Order of the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh.” (MA 8) He characterized the Universal House of Justice as the "apex" of the Administrative Order, as its "dome, the final unit crowning the entire edifice," as explained here. The distinctive position of the Guardian as a member of the Universal House of Justice is seen in the Master's description of him as the “sacred head and the distinguished member for life of that body.” (WT 14) In the Will, the Hands of the Cause and the members of the Universal House of Justice are directed to show their “obedience, submissiveness and subordination” to the Guardian, "to turn unto him and be lowly before him." (WT 11) The Guardian's interpretations of the Baha'i Writings are, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, "authoritative and binding." (WOB 150) In its letter dated 9 Mar 1965 the Universal House of Justice states that the Guardian's "interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied."
As the "Expounder" of the Word, (BA 7) the Guardian of the Faith was endowed with the divine guidance to make these determinations, and when doing so, the Guardian was not merely expressing a viewpoint; nor did Shoghi Effendi ever describe his interpretations in that way. When interpreting, he made a final, an unchallengeable, a divinely-guided determination. In doing so, he never said, “this is my opinion” or “this is my contribution to the discussion”. He knew he was divinely guided, and he presented his statements in an authoritative and direct manner. They were conclusions, not conscientious beliefs, and were always characterized by the tone of divinely-bestowed authority.
In addition to being the Expounder of the revealed Word of God, the Master's Will provided for the Guardian of the Faith to participate in the enactment of legislation as a member of the Universal House of Justice. Elaborating on his role in the process of legislation Shoghi Effendi wrote,
"Though the Guardian of the Faith has been made the permanent head of so august a body he can never, even temporarily, assume the right of exclusive legislation. He cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members, but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Bahá'u'lláh's revealed utterances. He interprets what has been specifically revealed, and cannot legislate except in his capacity as member of the Universal House of Justice." (WOB 150)In this paragraph Shoghi Effendi makes clear that the Guardian's individual infallibility does not extend to legislation: He can "never ... assume the right of exclusive legislation." If the Guardian's infallibility extended to legislation, there would be no need for the Universal House of Justice.
The Guardian's choice of words is significant. Here, Shoghi Effendi states that the Guardian will call for reconsideration of any enactment when he "conscientiously believes" it would depart from the meaning or the spirit of the Sacred Text. This conscientious belief resonates with his description of the "dictates and promptings" of the "conscience" of the elected members of the Universal House of Justice (WOB 153) as they carry out their role in legislation. This terminology--conscientious belief--is the only place in the Guardian's writings where he speaks of himself in this way. It is not characteristic of the binding and authoritative tone of the Guardian's interpretations. If the Guardian was here describing a matter of interpretation of the Writings, if he was "functioning within his own sphere," (WOB 149) his guidance would be supreme, and the matter would be out of the hands of the Universal House of Justice. Rather, the conscientious belief that a proposed enactment would conflict with the meaning or depart from the spirit of the Writings may describe a power shared in by the entire membership of the Universal House of Justice.
If in the phrase "he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Bahá'u'lláh's revealed utterances" the Guardian were describing an act of authoritative interpretation, a power unique to the Guardian of the Faith, the Universal House of Justice would not be legislating on the matter. The House of Justice can only legislate when the Text is silent--where there is no "revealed utterance" to interpret. (TB 68) Therefore, there can be no Text to interpret here.
If the Guardian is here speaking of the enactment of subsidiary legislation to supplement a revealed law, `Abdu'l-Bahá has specifically stated that in the process of filling gaps intentionally left in His scheme of legislation by Bahá'u'lláh, the entire membership of the House of Justice, not only the Guardian, is divinely guided to pass supplementary legislation that is consistent with the revealed law:
Let it not be imagined that the House of Justice will take any decision according to its own concepts and opinions. God forbid! The Supreme House of Justice will take decisions and establish laws through the inspiration and confirmation of the Holy Spirit, because it is in the safekeeping and under the shelter and protection of the Ancient Beauty, and obedience to its decisions is a bounden and essential duty and an absolute obligation, and there is no escape for anyone.
Say, O people: Verily the Supreme House of Justice is under the wings of your Lord, the Compassionate, the All- Merciful, that is, under His protection, His care, and His shelter; for He has commanded the firm believers to obey that blessed, sanctified and all-subduing body, whose sovereignty is divinely ordained and of the Kingdom of Heaven and whose laws are inspired and spiritual.
Briefly, this is the wisdom of referring the laws of society to the House of Justice. In the religion of Islam, similarly, not every ordinance was explicitly revealed; nay not a tenth part of a tenth part was included in the Text; although all matters of major importance were specifically referred to, there were undoubtedly thousands of laws which were unspecified. These were devised by the divines of a later age according to the laws of Islamic jurisprudence, and individual divines made conflicting deductions from the original revealed ordinances. All these were enforced. Today this process of deduction is the right of the body of the House of Justice, and the deductions and conclusions of individual learned men have no authority, unless they are endorsed by the House of Justice. The difference is precisely this, that from the conclusions and endorsements of the body of the House of Justice whose members are elected by and known to the worldwide Bahá'í community, no differences will arise; whereas the conclusions of individual divines and scholars would definitely lead to differences, and result in schism, division, and dispersion. The oneness of the Word would be destroyed, the unity of the Faith would disappear, and the edifice of the Faith of God would be shaken. (27 May 1966)
This Tablet of `Abdu'l-Bahá makes clear that God inspires the collective elected membership of the Universal House of Justice--"the body of the House of Justice whose members are elected by and known to the worldwide Bahá'í community"--in the enactment of legislation. He also implies that the pronouncements of the Universal House of Justice maintain "the oneness of the Word." I believe that the House of Justice maintaining "the oneness of the Word" is the same principle as the Guardian in his legislative capacity expressing his belief that a proposed enactment of the Universal House of Justice would "conflict with the meaning" or "depart from the spirit" of Bahá'u'lláh's revealed laws it is supplementing. That is, to believe that in the absence of the Guardian of the Cause, the Universal House of Justice is not divinely protected from enacting supplementary legislation at odds with the revealed laws, is inconsistent with other emphatic promises in the Baha'i Writings on the same subject. Both `Abdu'l-Bahá's statement quoted immediately above, and the Guardian's statement that the divine guidance bestowed on the elected members of the Universal House of Justice is the "ultimate safeguard of the Baha'i Revelation" expressly assure that the elected membership of the Universal House of Justice is divinely guided in its legislative enactments. That the Universal House of Justice is not in danger of straying into error in the course of legislation, in the absence of the Guardian, is explained in the 27 May 1966 letter of the Universal House of Justice.
That the House of Justice is divinely guided in its enactment of legislation is also demonstrated by examining the contrasting conclusions Shoghi Effendi reached, in his resolutions of the respective authority of the divine institutions provided for in the Master's Will. Abdu'l-Bahá's Will provided that the members of the other institutions of the Faith, as well as the members of the families of the Manifestations, were to be subordinate to the Guardian's divinely-bestowed guidance and authority:
It is incumbent upon the members of the House of Justice, upon all the Aghsán, the Afnán, the Hands of the Cause of God to show their obedience, submissiveness and subordination unto the Guardian of the Cause of God, to turn unto him and be lowly before him. (WT 11)
There is another function specifically given to the Guardian in the Master's Will--to appoint his successor Guardian, and it is illuminating to see how Shoghi Effendi characterizes the relative authority of the two divine institutions involved in this process:
It is incumbent upon the Guardian of the Cause of God to appoint in his own life-time him that shall become his successor . . . The Hands of the Cause of God must elect from their own number nine persons that shall at all times be occupied in the important services in the work of the Guardian of the Cause of God ... and these, whether unanimously or by a majority vote, must give their assent to the choice of the one whom the Guardian of the Cause of God hath chosen as his successor. (WT 12)This provision of the Will was never carried out, because Shoghi Effendi was unable to appoint a successor, as explained here; but the principle is still important to examine.
Shoghi Effendi was asked whether this provision in the Will that the Chosen Nine Hands must vote in a secret ballot and give their assent to the Guardian's choice of successor, implied that they could overrule the Guardian's choice. Shoghi Effendi, in a letter written on his behalf, interpreted this provision in the Will requiring the assent of the Hands of the Cause, in the light of the command in the Will quoted above ("It is incumbent upon the members...") that the Hands were to be obedient and submissive to the Guardian. Shoghi Effendi stated that this implied that they could not overrule the Guardian's choice:
"The statement in the Will of `Abdu'l-Bahá does not imply that the Hands of the Cause of God have been given the authority to overrule the Guardian. `Abdu'l-Bahá could not have provided for a conflict of authority in the Faith. This is obvious, in view of His own words, which you will find on page 13 [page 11 of 1944 U.S. edition] of the Will and Testament of `Abdu'l-Bahá. 'The mighty stronghold shall remain impregnable and safe through obedience to him who is the guardian of the Cause of God. It is incumbent upon ... the Hands of the Cause of God to show their obedience, submissiveness and subordination unto the guardian of the Cause of God, to turn unto him and be lowly before him. he that opposeth him hath opposed the True One,' etc." (BN)
Please note that the same verse from the Will directs the members of the Universal House of Justice to be submissive to the Guardian; but as we will now see, Shoghi Effendi arrives at a different resolution of authority when explaining the provisions of the Will regarding the Guardian's participation as a member of the Universal House of Justice in the enactment of legislation.
Shoghi Effendi stated that in understanding the significance of the passage about the nine Hands of the Cause who work most intimately with the Guardian voting on the Guardian's choice of successor, we must realize that `Abdu'l-Bahá "could not have provided for a conflict of authority in the Faith." Now let us look at the lead sentences in the passage quoted above from "The Dispensation of Baha'u'llah", and how, in the enactment of legislation, Shoghi Effendi applied this same principle that the Writings can never provide for a conflict of authority:
"...the Guardian of the Faith ... cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members..." (WOB 150)This contrasts with Shoghi Effendi's determination that the Hands of the Cause could not "overrule the Guardian." This is very interesting, in light of the passage from the Will that the members of the Universal House of Justice, like the Hands of the Cause, must show "obedience, submissiveness and subordination unto the guardian of the Cause of God, ... turn unto him and be lowly before him." When applied to the Guardian selecting his successor, Shoghi Effendi interpreted this verse of the Will to mean that not only the Hands individually, but the "Chosen Nine" Hands of the Cause voting as a body unanimously or by majority on his choice of successor, could not overrule the Guardian. However, despite this verse, the opposite is true when the Guardian is serving in a legislative capacity as a member of the Universal House of Justice: It is the Guardian who could not override a majority decision of the Universal House of Justice.
The implication is clear: The body of the Universal House of Justice, and not the members who comprise it, whether elected members or the hereditary Guardian, is the divinely-guided ultimate authority on whether an enactment is in keeping with the spirit and meaning of the revealed law.
As Paul Lample, a member of the Universal House of Justice, has written on this passage about the Guardian not being able to override the decision of his fellow members, but being bound to insist upon reconsideration:
"It is argued that this clause means that without the Guardian, the House of Justice might make a decision that conflicts with the meaning or departs from the spirit of the Text. Yet, a careful reading of the entire passage makes it obvious that far from implying that the Universal House of Justice may make an error without the Guardian present to direct its deliberations, in fact, the opposite is true. The passage explains that even if the Guardian were to raise a point for reconsideration, nevertheless, the final word is left to the body of the Universal House of Justice.... The passage from Shoghi Effendi, embedded in the wider context of a description of the nature of the Guardianship, is presented as a limitation on the powers of the Guardian, not as a check on the powers of the Universal House of Justice, whose authority and infallibility are strongly affirmed. It suggests that even if the Guardian as a member were to raise certain concerns, it is the decision of the majority that is the final and infallible conclusion of that body." (Revelation and Social Reality, Footnote 119, page 254)The Universal House of Justice has written, in its comments on this subject:
It is impossible to conceive that two centers of authority, which the Master has stated “are both under the care and protection of the Abha Beauty, under the shelter and unerring guidance of His Holiness the Exalted One,” could conflict with one another, because both are vehicles of the same Divine Guidance.And:
Although the Guardian, in relation to his fellow members within the Universal House of Justice, cannot override the decision of the majority, it is inconceivable that the other members would ignore any objection he raised in the course of consultation or pass legislation contrary to what he expressed as being in harmony with the spirit of the Cause. It is, after all, the final act of judgment delivered by the Universal House of Justice that is vouchsafed infallibility, not any views expressed in the course of the process of enactment. (7 Dec 1969)
As Shoghi Effendi explains, it is the "final judgment" of the Universal House of Justice that is "authoritative and binding":
The interpretation of the Guardian, functioning within his own sphere, is as authoritative and binding as the enactments of the International House of Justice, whose exclusive right and prerogative is to pronounce upon and deliver the final judgment on such laws and ordinances as Bahá'u'lláh has not expressly revealed. (WOB 150)And it is this "final judgment" delivered by the Universal House of Justice, and not any views expressed in the course of the enactment of legislation, that is divinely protected from error.