Friday, January 1, 1991

Location - Sudbury

According to Divine Providence, "Our own prudence is nothing. It only seems to exist; and further, it

should seem to exist; but divine providence covers everything because it is so detailed." In this

essay, then, I will be dealing with a nothing that does and should seem to exist, namely Swedenborg's

own prudence, as it relates to his theological works. I want to try to reconstruct, from the evidence,

an image of how it all happened to and for him. He was setting out into uncharted territory, on an

unplanned task; and the divine guidance, under the laws of providence, would not have overridden his

own freedom.

We may begin with the following words in Carl Robsahm's account of the pivotal event in London in

April 1745. "He (that is, the Lord) then said that . . . He had chosen me to unfold to men the

spiritual sense of the scripture, . . ."[1]

Swedenborg himself was elderly when he described this event to Robsahm, we may therefore have his

understanding of the call in the light of subsequent events. I will be presenting and exploring

evidence to suggest that this definition of his task proved too narrow. The evidence is primarily what

he did in fact do and write, and its pertinence rests in the assumption that he was constant in his

effort to heed his call as his understanding of it developed.

More or less in the course of his call, he wrote The Worship and Love of God, publishing only part of

it. It is a kind of poetic creation myth, and to me, it looks very much as though he was making use of

an accepted literary device to begin to communicate his new-found and growing meaning, and was as yet

not ready to "lay it on the line."

His next major undertakings were the so-called "Spiritual Diary," and a very substantial Bible Index,

which were to serve as basic resources for his later writing. The Index clearly relates to The Word

Explained, a major undertaking in its own right. He carried this latter work through the Pentateuch,

and extended it by treating Isaiah and fifty of the fifty-two chapters of Jeremiah, at which point he

apparently stopped. The "Diary" obviously deals with his other-world experiences. There is also

evidence that it too was intended for publication, but this never happened. He eventually indexed it,

and drew on it quite freely for other works.

Now, there is a close connection between Swedenborg's spiritual experiences and his understanding of

the Word. Swedenborg states the connection clearly in such statements as "Man, being born for both

lives, can, while in the world, be also in Heaven, through the Word, which is for both worlds" (AC


Notwithstanding this connection, however, these two foci of attention--Scripture exegesis and

spiritual experience--remained distinguishable. As late as 1770, Swedenborg could write, "As the Lord

has opened to me the spiritual sense of the Word, and as it has been granted me to be together with

angels and spirits in their world as one of them . . ." (TCR 776). We can therefore see Swedenborg

immediately after his call following two related but quite distinct tracks, and devoting a good deal

of time and energy to each.

Scripture exegesis came to the fore, and the years 1749-56 saw the publication of the eight volumes of

Arcana Coelestia, a commentary on the books of Genesis and Exodus. One factor in this turn of events

was surely Swedenborg's own strong Lutheran background. The heart and soul of Lutheranism was its

insistence on the Bible--not the church, tradition, or "natural theology"--as the sole source of

revealed truth. Swedenborg can state this quite strongly: "When those who are in enlightenment are

reading the Word, they see the Lord . . . . This takes place solely in the Word, and not in any other

writing" (AC 9411).

There is evidence in Arcana Coelestia that Swedenborg planned to continue it well beyond Exodus. He

makes occasional references to his intent, God willing, to give further information when he gets to

Leviticus, Joshua, or Judges. Most clearly, though, the printer's notice of the English translation

which Swedenborg commissioned begins, "This work is intended to be such an exposition of the whole

Bible, as was never attempted in any language."[2]

The Arcana itself, however, almost immediately presents our duality. At the close of its second

chapter, Swedenborg appends an account of his experience of dying, and as the volume proceeds, he uses

the interchapter spaces to present material on the spiritual world. I used to think that he did this

to relieve the monotony of sustained exegesis, but I now believe it is because his spiritual

experiences were so intimately connected to his understanding of Scripture. To put it most simply, how

could you understand the spiritual sense if you knew nothing about the spiritual world?

As the work draws to close, evidence of a third focus begins to emerge. The closing chapters of Exodus

tell the story of the building of the tabernacle in terms virtually identical to the earlier narration

of God's commandments for its building. In those closing chapters, Swedenborg simply refers the reader

to his treatment of the parallel material, and uses the extra "space" for consecutive presentation on

a number of doctrinal topics.

At this point, Swedenborg was faced with a decision. In dealing with Genesis, he had covered, at least

in outline, the whole course of the Lord's glorification, and in dealing with Exodus he had dealt with

much of the history of the churches through the ages. It is hard to imagine how he could have kept on

the same course much longer; and the deciding factor may well have been that Arcana Coelestia was not

selling at all well, even at substantially subsidized prices. If the books were not being read, people

were not being helped.

Within two years after the publication of the last volume of the Arcana, no less than five separate

works were written and published, all drawing heavily on the Arcana. The White Horse of the Apocalypse

is a treatise on the nature of the Word, with copious Arcana references. The New Jerusalem and Its

Heavenly Doctrine is a kind of theological glossary, with extensive Arcana extracts appended to each

brief chapter. Earths in the Universe is lightly edited from interchapter material, while The Last

Judgment and Heaven and Hell are expanded treatments of subjects introduced in the same way.

These works are very different from Arcana Coelestia. Most obviously, they are far less formidable,

and Earths in the Universe and Heaven and Hell in particular focus on topics with broad popular

appeal. Is it simply a coincidence that Heaven and Hell has consistently been our "best-seller?"

Incidentally, I think we miss the point of Earths in the Universe completely if we get caught up in

arguments about the actual existence of people on particular planets. The central purpose of the

little book is surely to present some theological truths which can lead people to the Lord.

As the five works just mentioned came off the press, Swedenborg turned back to Scripture. It is

immediately evident that he had abandoned any thought of writing a commentary on the whole Word. Now,

having published on the first two books, he turned to the last, the book of Revelation, and began

writing The Apocalypse Explained. He got about halfway through the nineteenth chapter (out of

twenty-two), and then laid it aside. It is a major work, comprising six substantial volumes in English

translation; and there have been various opinions as to his reasons for dropping it.

I would see the main reason in the nature of the work itself. Through much of it, Swedenborg sticks

quite close to his exegetical task. Early in his treatment of Revelation 15, however, he begins to

attend to another task. Whereas in the Arcana he inserted material between chapters, he now appends

material to each (numbered) paragraph. At n. 932, he begins a discussion of "The Goods of Charity,"

pursuing it at n. 933 with the heading "Continuatio"; and he continues this procedure to the end of

his work. This "secondary" material gradually grows in scope, and the exegetical material becomes more

and more cursory. The scriptural focus is being replaced, this time not by an experiential focus, but

by one on topical or systematic theology. I doubt that we need look any further for Swedenborg's

reason for laying the work aside. The book had lost its focus.

It is estimated that he stopped working on it in 1759. In 1763-4, he published no less than seven

books--the four doctrines (of the Lord, of Sacred Scripture, of Life, and of Faith), A Continuation on

the Last Judgment, Divine Love and Wisdom, and Divine Providence. Much of this material is clearly

foreshadowed in the "continuations" in The Apocalypse Explained.

Now, however, there is a new dimension to the shift of focus. Swedenborg's preface to the first of

these 1763 works, The Doctrine of the Lord, reads in part as follows:

Some years ago there were published the following five little works:

1. On Heaven and Hell

2. The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem

3. On the Last Judgment

4. On the White Horse

5. On the Planets and other Earths in the Universe.

In these works many things were set forth that have hitherto been unknown.

Now, by command of the Lord [italics mine], who has been revealed to me, the following are to be


The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem concerning the Lord

The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem concerning the Holy Scripture

The Doctrine of Life for the New Jerusalem from the Ten Commandments

The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem concerning Faith

A Continuation concerning the Last Judgment

Angelic Wisdom concerning the Divine Providence

Angelic Wisdom concerning the Divine Omnipotence, Omnipresence, Omniscience, Infinity, and Eternity

Angelic Wisdom Concerning the Divine Love and Wisdom

Angelic Wisdom concerning Life

It is surely striking that while his basic commission centered in unfolding the spiritual sense of the

Word, this most specific list includes no Scripture interpretation whatever. Swedenborg was reasonably

obedient to this command, publishing seven of the nine works stated, and in fact covering all the

topics involved.

At this point, we can gain a clearer view of the process. If we put the nature of The Apocalypse

Explained together with this command, then the "continuations" can be seen as a kind of pre-echo.

They are evidence that Swedenborg was beginning to pick up a message concerning the specific direction

his work should take, a direction different from the Biblical one that was foremost in his

consciousness. Providence and prudence were on divergent courses. Most simply, it would seem that the

Lord was telling him not to focus so narrowly on Scripture.

Note that while Swedenborg seems to have heard the command quite explicitly, in the form of nine

specific titles, his own prudence had the freedom to follow the listing in principle rather than in

complete detail. Note also that in listing the works published "some years ago," Swedenborg did not

mention the Arcana-- a rather substantial omission, since at that time it represented about two-thirds

of his published theology. I could ask for no clearer indication that he regarded the 1763-4 works as

being in the same "special category" as the 1758 works, quite distinct from his "explicit" task of

Scripture exegesis.

When Divine Providence was published in 1764, then, Swedenborg evidently felt both free and

commissioned to return to the Apocalypse. The commission was apparently quite explicit. At the close

of a Memorable Relation (undated) in Marriage Love, he says, "Then I heard a voice from heaven, `Go

into your room, close the door, and get down to the work you started on the Apocalypse. Carry it to

completion within two years'" (CL 521f.). What I now hear this saying is, "You started it, now finish

it--but be quick about it." The Apocalypse Revealed was in fact published in 1766, two years after the

publication of Divine Providence.

On April 8, 1766, Swedenborg sent eight copies of The Apocalypse Revealed to his friend and follower,

Dr. Beyer. The next day, he received a letter from Beyer which expressed a wish for a book on


Swedenborg had apparently started work on such a book when he received this letter, but it may be that

Beyer's suggestion at least precipitated the final draft of Marriage Love. The work has some unusual

features. For the first time, the title page bore his name--"Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swede." The secret

had been out for at least eight years, during which seven works were published. He described it as

"not a theological work, but mostly a book of morals,"[4] and no other work keeps such an insistent

focus on human behavior and circumstances. No other work has such a high proportion of narrative to

exposition. Swedenborg chose the title "Delights of Wisdom" in preference to "Angelic Wisdom."

Further, the device of opening with an extended "Memorable Relation," especially one of the funniest,

is without precedent in his other works.

Marriage Love was published in 1768, and Swedenborg was eighty. His age itself must have militated

against undertaking another major exegetical task, and circumstances began to press him in another

direction. His few followers were meeting the opposition from the established church that would

culminate in the Gothenburg heresy trial which began that fall.

Not surprisingly, then, we find Swedenborg suddenly occupied with the study of standard Christian

doctrine. His working manuscripts now deal with such topics as "Justification and Good Works," "A

Conversation with Calvin," and "Remission of Sins." In 1769 he addressed directly the relationship of

the new theology to the old in A Brief Exposition. In sharp contrast, Soul-Body Interaction, published

in the same year, is quite exclusively "philosophical," dealing with none of the issues raised at the

heresy trial. This may represent another instance of his deliberately keeping his agendas separate.

It is, in a way, a short step from A Brief Exposition to True Christian Religion. Dr. Robert H. Kirven

has on occasion suggested that this latter work is modeled on traditional systematic theologies. I

suspect that this is quite true, and that it was precipitated by the theological issues that led

ultimately to the heresy trial. There was a need to address the growing opposition from orthodox

Lutheranism directly.

To do so, he used authorities which the Lutheran church regarded as valid. He cited the traditional

creed for support; and the extensive quotations from the Epistles, which he regarded as non-canonical

and had previously cited only sparingly, demonstrate his intent to meet his opponents on their own


Further, the work is organized around Lutheran theological constructs. Swedenborg's own theology would

not have prompted separate chapters on the three persons of the trinity or on imputation, and would

surely have prompted chapters on heaven, hell, the world of spirits, and marriage. In short, the work

seems best understood not as a final summary of his theology but as a demonstration that this theology

was "truly Christian."

To summarize the whole process, then, we begin with a person profoundly committed to a Lutheran view

of the exclusive centrality of Scripture. We find him encountering meaning in quite unexpected forms,

particularly in direct, intense, and enlightening spiritual experience. We find a distinct tension at

this level, issuing in uncertainty as to the best means of fulfilling his mission. This uncertainty is

resolved by a kind of alternation between exegetical, experiential, and topical presentation; and in

this alternation we can see the interactive effects of his own conscious judgment, his own deeper

sense of urgency, his circumstances, and divine mandates. The evidence is slender, but I believe that

the slender indications point toward a coherent and believable process.


[1]:. Benjamin Worcester, The Life and Mission of Emanuel Swedenborg (Boston:

Little Brown, 1907), p. 204.

[2]:. Robert Hindmarsh, Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church in England,

America, and other Parts: Particularly in Reference to its External Manifestation

by Public Worship, Preaching, and the Administration of the Sacraments, with Other

Ordinances of the Church (London, Hodson & Son; 1861), p. 2.

[3]:. Cyriel Sigstedt, The Swedenborg Epic (New York, Bookman, 1952), p. 324.

[4]:. Tafel, op. cit., p. 306.

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