Saturday, August 21, 2010

Infallibility Artifice

According to official Baha'i sources, certain inputs to, and the design of, The Universal House of Justice (UHJ) may possess an attribute of infallibility, which does not necessarily extend to UHJ outputs. This working hypothesis is based on a simple "black box" model shown in the figure and a brief literature survey.
The major result is that individuals, without any authority based on Baha'i scripture, may have wrongly described UHJ outputs -- its writings and actions -- as infallible, which can be an unnecessary source of confusion and distortion of the unique attributes of the Baha'i administration, to the detriment of the Baha'i world community.


As a world religion founded in 1863 by Baha'u'llah, who claimed to be a messenger or manifestation of God, the Baha'i Faith teaches that God is key in both the inputs to and the design of the UHJ.

Referring to the Ministry of 'Abdu'l-Baha, son of Baha'u'llah, the official Baha'i web site writes:
'Abdu'l-Baha confirms that the Universal House of Justice is "under the protection and the unerring guidance of God."
Note the adjective "unerring" might be considered as redundant or for emphasis, if it is assumed that "guidance of God" would be unerring, infallible, etc.

In the Constitution of the UHJ, referring to its elected members, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith (1921-1957), is quoted;
"God will verily inspire them with whatsoever He willeth", is Bahá'u'lláh's incontrovertible assurance. They ... have thus been made the recipients of the divine guidance...
where "divine guidance" is, of course, an UHJ input.

Individual Baha'is have echoed this thinking. Brent Poirier wrote:
...the House of Justice is infallibly guided when it legislates to fill the gaps intentionally left by Baha'u'llah in the fabric of His laws.
with the focus on the input of promised divine guidance.

Naturally, the facts pertaining to any matter, along with relevant teachings in Baha'i scripture, are also very significant inputs to the decision-making process of the UHJ.


First elected in 1963, the UHJ is the highest administrative body and also the spiritual center of the Baha'i community. As such, its decisions have a "final and binding" attribute.

The ideas regarding divine guidance cited above may also be considered as part of its design. The design of the Baha'i Administration, including its top body -- the UHJ, is a vast subject beyond the scope of this article. In aggregate, this rather unique system no doubt provides ample food for thought for students of religious studies and social and political science and philosophy. However, some introductory remarks are cited, again quoting Shoghi Effendi:
...this Administrative Order is fundamentally different from anything that any Prophet has previously established, inasmuch as Bahá'u'lláh Himself revealed its principles, established its institutions, appointed the person to interpret His Word, and conferred the necessary authority on the body [the Universal House of Justice] designed to supplement and apply His legislative ordinances...
While the design is considered by Baha'is to be divinely inspired, it includes provisions for things that might go wrong, so to speak. First, the UHJ can change its rulings as conditions in the world change and develop. Even elected members might be removed from office for certain behaviors, as described in its Constitution, although there is as yet no known case of this type of removal.


UHJ outputs include all of its writings -- formal statements and correspondence, its plans, actions, legislation or rulings and guidance to Baha'i individuals and communities.

As the focus of the present working hypothesis, the literature search thus far reveals no clear and definitive statement in Baha'i scripture that UHJ outputs, however inspired, informed, lucid and widely-followed they might be, are necessarily infallible in the sense of being absolutely free from error.

Rather one finds a collection of often ambiguous and/or vague statements by individuals who do not possess official administrative authority (as the elected bodies do), which may imply to many, without firm foundation, that UHJ outputs are indeed infallible.

1984 (approx.)
In 2005, Dr. Susan Manech wrote:
...nearly a decade before Doug Martin was elected to the House of Justice, for instance, I remember him insisting that each and everything the House said was infallible, by which I think he meant propositional inerrancy.
Since Mr. Martin was elected to the UHJ in 1993, we might place "nearly a decade before" in about 1984.

Apparently struggling with the assumption of infallible UHJ outputs, in "Infallible Institutions?" Udo Schaefer wrote:
This paper analyses two categories of "infallibility": essential infallibility which is inherent in the messengers of God, and conferred infallibility which is a characteristic of the institutions of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice. This paper focuses on the Universal House of Justice. Does its infallibility operate to an unlimited extent? Are every one of its decisions infallible, and if not, what are its boundaries? The immanent limits of this charisma are analysed and a detailed argument provided that supports a defensible restrictive interpretation.
In short, this sort of heroic analysis is not needed if the present thesis is accepted -- namely, that there is no scriptural basis to assume that UHJ outputs are infallible.

In a talk given by Dr. Peter Khan at the National Teaching Conference, Auckland, New Zealand, June, 2000, Dr. Khan, an elected member of the UHJ from 1987 to 2010, reportedly said:
...we have at the centre of our Faith a body called the Universal House of Justice,... ...then I laid on them the fact that it was, that we regard it as infallible, divinely guided and freed from error.
Dr. Khan's statement in a major talk that the UHJ was (or is) infallible and that "we regard it as infallible" as a "fact" must have been big news at the Baha'i World Centre. When he returned to Haifa, perhaps the UHJ told him, "Please do not promulgate your personal theological views as if 'we' (the UHJ) endorsed them."

J. T. Lamb wrote:
The UHJ is infallible
where no distinction is made among UHJ input, design and output.

R. Khanam wrote:
...the Universal House of Justice ... is infallible and divinely inspired in its rulings and legislative activity.
where the "is infallible" part is a general statement and the "divinely inspired" part specifically refers to the input section of our model.

A Wiki article states:
The books and documents published by the Universal House of Justice are considered authoritative and its legislative decisions are considered infallible to Bahá'ís.
This statement specifically ascribes, without known basis, infallibility to UHJ outputs.

The author may also be counted as assuming that UHJ outputs are officially deemed to be infallible, without firm basis, in his recent "Gaming the Baha'i Writings" article. However, that article did note the fact that the word "infallible" or "infallibility" does not even appear in the Constitution of the UHJ.

In an effort to define two types of infallibility -- strong and weak, Ron Stephens wrote:
...The Baha'i Faith...requires a more true, "Weak principle of Infallibility", which includes evolutionary tendencies, and as guided by an Infallible Universal House of Justice...
Unlike the present approach, it seems some sort of infallible UHJ output is assumed and therefore Stephens tries to make sense of such a concept.


1. The almost 50 year history of the UHJ since its first election in 1963 shows its staying power, among other things. In that time, its accumulated writings and correspondence fill many volumes. Hence, the present brief literature search may have missed material significant to the topic.

However, the unmistakable conclusion is, first, that the institution of the UHJ possesses attributes of infallibility in both its inputs and design. After all, the Baha'i Faith is a religion based on a revelation believed to be God's will and teachings for this era, and hence, the foregoing points are more or less established by definition. One either accepts that sort of conception or not.

Second, in a result that may be surprising and even controversial to many Baha'is, there seems to be no firm basis to conclude that UHJ outputs are infallible, "free from error", "unerring", an "expression of divine guidance" and so forth. In this light, it may be shocking that so many speakers and authors have assumed and asserted this baseless assumption as if it were written in stone in Baha'i scripture.

As a result, efforts to define categories of infallibility may seem to have completely missed the point. For most purposes, there is no need to do so, at least regarding the UHJ. Thus, infallibility categories -- strong or weak, full or restricted, inherent or conferred and so on -- if relevant at all, would seem to apply only to UHJ input and design, but not to UHJ output.

2. The statements above connecting some sort of infallibility with UHJ output were presented as efforts by individuals, not as part of Baha'i scripture and not as communications from official Baha'i institutions. Concerning these individuals, first, the Baha'i Faith has no clergy, no sub-set of persons with higher authority to determine the meaning of Baha'i scripture or institutions than any other Baha'i members. Second, as far as the present analysis has proceeded, there is no scriptural basis for these statements associating infallibility with UHJ statements (output).

3. The author's "Gaming..." article cited above may therefore be amended to suggest that Baha'i authorities explain to the Baha'i community the present result to avoid further confusion re the "infallibility status" of UHJ outputs.

4. The present result can be a valuable asset in promoting the Baha'i Faith. For one thing, there is no need for it and its UHJ to be the object of the kind of ridicule that can arise from claims that UHJ outputs are infallible.

5. This report raises the question of the motive of individuals in the apparent promotion of the idea that UHJ outputs are infallible, thereby subjecting the Baha'i Faith to unnecessary ridicule. Were these just innocent cases of simple confusion arising from vague statements and unwarranted assumptions? Or did some of this activity have more sinister motives? For example, could it be mere coincidence that two leading fundamentalists as operationally defined here -- Mr. Martin and Dr. Khan -- were among the voices promoting the infallible output thesis?

6. According to the present analysis, belief that UHJ statements are infallible is unfounded and appears to have developed over the last quarter century, promoted by individuals with no authority to do so. Indeed, promotion of this unfounded belief arguably is an artifice to distort the unique and lofty design of the Baha'i administration and its UHJ, and as such, is hostile to the interests of the Baha'i Faith and the UHJ.

The unfailing strength of the Baha'i community is close adherence to its fundamental teachings -- a potent unifying factor.


Using official Baha'i sources and a simple black box model, (1) divine guidance plays a significant role in inputs to and the design of the UHJ; (2) however, claims that outputs of the UHJ -- its writings and actions -- are infallible have no known scriptural basis. Assertions by individuals and by Baha'i books that UHJ statements are infallible might be an effort to undermine or weaken the credibility of the UHJ by making it an object of ridicule.
© 2010 James J Keene


  1. I have to say that this isn't as clear as it could be, or at least I had to labor through it in places. In the end, I take it that you're saying that the infallibility of the House isn't that well understood, and that individual members of the House, notably Doug Martin, have made statements that no scriptural source will back up. It seems like this is what you're saying, but perhaps I'm missing some of the nuance here.

  2. Thanks for valuable reader feedback. To increase clarity, I added section 6 of the Discussion and a Summary section. Hopefully it will now be clear (or is it?) that I'm saying that infallibility of the House is indeed quite well understood -- it applies to its inputs and design. Regarding its outputs, assertions that "UHJ statements or legislation are infallible" are not established by scripture and as such, may be seen as false theological musing of persons who wittingly or unwittingly may be working against the Baha'i Faith. If a scriptural basis for such assertions exists, where has it been hidden for a quarter century? I think such false assertions have already done a boat load of damage to the Baha'i community and should be corrected ASAP.

  3. I agree, since I have witnessed them make mistakes - and then be stubborn about them!
    Thank you for the crystal-clear analysis!

  4. I knew you were the sort of person to appreciate constructive criticism! In saying that people have misunderstood infallibility, you're saying that they've imagined that it affects OUTPUTS. Is that right? I don't know how anyone could understand infallibility the way Doug Martin pretends to, but there you have it!

  5. Dear Brendon, Yes and yes. Readers decide if what we write is clear or has merit. Divine guidance can affect outputs, hopefully to improve them, but that does not mean the output is the infallible word of God. I have at times felt some event was a sort of divine guidance, but that does not make me a Manifestation of God. If an entity receives "unerring guidance", that is an input and who knows the status of the output?

    Why go to all the trouble to elect a UHJ if a simple printer on Mount Carmel would just print out God's infallible decisions and will? Answer: Through Baha'u'llah, God designed the UHJ which is a different activity than implementing this design in our imperfect world.

    As long as people understand that input and output are apples and oranges, we have progress. AFAIK, to its credit, the UHJ itself has never claimed its statements of any kind are infallible. And it is no secret why -- there is no scriptural basis for such a proposition.

    A top-down review is called for. Perhaps the International Teaching Committee should be sure that none of the Counsellors are presently promoting this unfounded and very damaging misconception. Books (such as Ruhi?) need editing to remove text that trivializes the cardinal role of the UHJ by ad hoc and false theology that UHJ statements are infallible.

  6. Well said. I'm starting to understand something of the subtlety of the ideas you're trying to articulate. It's not easy to explain or understand because it's not a simple concept, but it's much clearer to me now.

  7. Thank you Dr. Keene, for this very uplifting and well-reasoned analysis. I am very glad to have found it. How beautiful and true your point of view seems to me. Your argument is also very falsifiable. Rather than sparking argument about judgment, all one has to do is find an authoritative basis in Baha'i scriptural cannon or the interpretations of the Guardian for the counter argument that outputs of the UHJ are infallible. If no such authoritative basis can be found, your position wins. If such authoritative basis is found, your position must conceded defeat. It's quite simple. How lovely.

  8. "In His Will and Testament 'Abdu'l-Bahá conferred the mantle of Guardian of the Cause and infallible Interpreter of its teachings upon His eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi, and
    confirmed the authority and guarantee of divine guidance decreed by Bahá'u'lláh for the Universal House of Justice on all matters "which have not outwardly been revealed in
    the Book". The Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice can thus be seen to be, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, the "Twin Successors" of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá.
    (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 3)
    I humbly feel that this is the Age of maturity of the human race. No individual should act as the blind trying to guide the blind. And obedience to the divine institutions is the only way for unity and progress.

  9. Dear Tu Nga, Excellent. We agree on all points.
    1. Scripture states that The Universal House of Justice is recipient of divine guidance, which is an input.
    2. Re the blind leading the blind -- a favorite expression of my father, I think it is up to the elected and appointed institutions to supervise this sort of thing, as I suggested. E.g., NSAs might be more selective re invited speakers at conventions, Baha'i schools, etc, to exclude those who promote their personal theories, including that House statements are infallible, a claim that the House itself has not supported.
    3. "Obedience to the divine institutions" is a different topic, but was covered in my report. Namely, House decisions are final and binding.
    In short, that obedience is based on scripture; that House outputs are infallible is not based on scripture. For many decades, nobody has produced such scripture which is a very telling fact.

  10. Dr. Keene, I wish to respond. First I wish to ask, if these passages do not refer to infallibility, what do they refer to?

    The first is Baha'u'llah's promise that God guides the House of Justice, which Shoghi Effendi identifies with the elected membership:

    1. In the conduct of the administrative affairs of the Faith, in the enactment of the legislation necessary to supplement the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the members of the Universal House of Justice, it should be borne in mind, are not, as Bahá'u'lláh's utterances clearly imply, responsible to those whom they represent, nor are they allowed to be governed by the feelings, the general opinion, and even the convictions of the mass of the faithful, or of those who directly elect them. 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.
    (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 153)

    This guidance ("inputs") that Baha'u'llah states that God inspires them with, Shoghi Effendi states is expressed in their "administrative" and "legislative" decisions, as well as in their judicial capacity ("any case presented for their consideration") -- their "outputs".

    2. The second is the heart of Abdu'l-Baha's Covenant, that the Bab and Baha'u'llah provide infallible guidance both to the Guardian and to the Universal House of Justice:

    "The sacred and youthful branch, the Guardian of the Cause of God, as well as the Universal House of Justice to be universally elected and established, are both under the care and protection of the Abha Beauty, under the shelter and unerring guidance of the Exalted One (may my life be offered up for them both). Whatsoever they decide is of God."
    (The Will and Testament, p. 11)

    Shoghi Effendi has interpreted that verse from the Will to mean infallible guidance:

    "The Guardian’s infallibility covers interpretation of the Revealed Word and its application. Likewise any instructions he may issue having to do with the protection of the Faith, or its well being must be closely obeyed, as he is infallible in the protection of the Faith. He is assured the guidance of both Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb, as the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá clearly reveals.” (From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, August 20, 1956; Lights of Guidance, 2nd edition, p. 313, #1055)

    That is, that above-quoted passage #2 from the Will is the only place in the Will where it is promised that the Bab ("the Exalted One") and Baha'u'llah ("The Abha Beauty") guide the Guardian and the House; so we know that is the passage Shoghi Effendi here refers to.

    As you can see from the quote he is talking about which assures him infallible guidance, (which you call inputs) and that it assures that he is infallible in his outputs-- his acts of interpretation and of protection; the same verse from the Will equally promises infallible guidance of the Bab and Baha'u'llah to the Universal House of Justice in its inputs and outputs.

    [continued in second comment below]

  11. 3. "...Should there be differences of opinion, the Supreme House of Justice would immediately resolve the problems. Whatever will be its decision, by majority vote, shall be the real truth, inasmuch as that House is under the protection, unerring guidance and care of the one true Lord. He shall guard it from error and will protect it under the wing of His sanctity and infallibility." (Excerpt from a Tablet of Abdu'l-Baha found in the Compilation on Establishment of the Universal House of Justice)

    4. "To epitomize: essential infallibility belongs especially to the supreme Manifestations, and acquired infallibility is granted to every holy soul. For instance, the Universal House of Justice, if it be established under the necessary conditions -- with members elected from all the people -- that House of Justice will be under the protection and the unerring guidance of God. If that House of Justice shall decide unanimously, or by a majority, upon any question not mentioned in the Book, that decision and command will be guarded from mistake. Now the members of the House of Justice have not, individually, essential infallibility; but the body of the House of Justice is under the protection and unerring guidance of God: this is called conferred infallibility."
    (Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1985), pp. 172-73)

    5. "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."
    (Excerpt from a Tablet of Abdu'l-Baha; Compilation on Establishment of the Universal House of Justice; also in Letters of the Universal House of Justice 1963-1986)

    I do not think there could be any clearer statements affirming the infallibility of the "inputs" and the "outputs" of the Universal House of Justice.

    Best regards
    Brent Poirier

  12. Dear Brent, If there could be no clearer statements that UHJ statements are infallible, it would seem that there is no hope for those who believe this contrived and damaging idea. But only 3 weeks have passed since it was debunked herein, so time will tell if anyone can come up with any scriptural support.

    In brief, your 5 points and quotes clearly refer to input to and design of the UHJ.

    The false premise that inputs are necessarily equal to outputs is seen in your comments.

    1. That legislation is a UHJ function is a different point than unerring guidance is an input.

    2. The quotes re Shoghi Effendi were also abundant in a letter on infallibility by the UHJ, which did not, as you do, claim that UHJ outputs are infallible. Thus, the "Martin" theology is a brave step beyond both scripture and the UHJ itself.

    3. and 4. To be "guarded", as "from mistake", is not a guarantee against mistake. This is just simple English. Look up "guard", which means to watch over, to protect, etc. God is doing the "guarding" (who else?) and this cannot be anything other than an input or design element.

    "Conferred infallibility" is indeed defined in the passage as an input -- "protection and unerring guidance of God".

    5. This quote reiterates the input and design features and adds another aspect -- the need for obedience.

    My earliest indirect reference to this apparent frontal attack on the credibility of the UHJ was from Martin in about 1984. All I can suggest is to read the quotes with a dictionary and try to avoid trivializing our great UHJ (designed by God as revealed in Baha'i scripture) by making personal interpretations that make it into an object of ridicule.

  13. Dear readers, Let us agree that this is an extremely significant matter. If so, where is the scripture stating "UHJ decisions are infallible"? AFAIK, it does not exist. If the founders desired, they could have said so. Instead, we have abundant statements that the institution will be blessed, guided, guarded, etc, by God. Is it so difficult to accept this scripture? Is that not enough? To me it is plenty. Are statements from the UHJ over almost 50 years not enough?

    It would seem that Martinites (if Martin does get the credit for this personal and illogical interpretation) want something that is, alas, impossible, because, since 1957, the age of new authorized interpretations of scripture was over. In the realm of personal interpretations, a humble suggestion is to venture into areas that enhance rather than diminish the lofty stature of the Baha'i Administration and its UHJ.

  14. James,

    I've got to say that I'm dazzled by your reasoning so far, but I've got to toss a difficult pitch your way. What do you make of the phrase "the source of all good and freed from error?" Doesn't that sound like it refers to outputs? I hate to do this, because I love your argument so far, but wouldn't this quote lead you to refine your theory?


  15. The passage you cite, thank you, Brendan, applies to design, as the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Baha where it appears indicates. He is speaking of how the UHJ is created -- "concerning the House of Justice which God hath ordained as the source of all good and freed from error, it must be elected by universal suffrage, that is, by the believers..." and immediately continues with further election detail. "Ordained" suggests design. If this is accepted, then the design is "freed from error". If the House is elected in a procedure contrary to his description, we sacrifice the "freed for error" design attribute.

    For a whole host of reasons, one can resist extracting those three words out of the context in which 'Abdu'l-Baha used them.

    Quite simply, it is not physically possible or consistent with the design itself that the outputs could be freed from error. Nor does scripture explicitly say that UHJ statements are infallible in the sense of being "freed from error". Beyond the lack of scriptural support for that idea, does one have to enumerate over almost 50 years all the errors in UHJ outputs? I think not. Do we have to debunk every possible statement that is not in Baha'i scripture? Not at all.

    Further, I do not recall seeing any rationale at all that UHJ outputs need to be infallible. What for? A consistent high quality level is more than adequate for the House to meet its design objectives.

    My father taught me it is unfair to ask a person to do something that he/she cannot do. Let us be fair to the UHJ and not invent new Baha'i teachings requiring the House to be perfect in any its daily routine functions. Let us be fair and refrain from being greedy. To unjustly demand perfection is to guarantee failure -- let us not play games with the future success (or failure) of the Baha'i world community.

    Alternatively, this may be a new "Prophet for a day" game. Pull a sequence of three words from Baha'i scripture out of context and use them to invent a new Baha'i teaching that nobody has ever heard of.

    Re "source of all good", I think this could apply without any contradiction with either fact or scripture to both the design and output of the House.

    While 'Abdu'l-Baha said the design of the House as he was describing it was "freed from error", this phrase describes, again redundantly for emphasis, the God-ordained attribute, or mechanics of the election process detailed. This is the conservative interpretation. Any other will for ever be subject to doubt, debate and even conflict.