Its Validity in the Late Twentieth Century

Friday, December 12, 1999

This is a huge topic, and there is no way I can do it justice. The basic problem is

simple: Swedenborg loved detail. His strategy for convincing the reader that there was

spiritual meaning in Scripture was to show that it could be found consistently in every

word. For present purposes, I think it is more appropriate to give some background

information, then to say something about the larger context in which his approach to

Scripture occurs, and then to offer a description of his method of Scripture

interpretation in that context. I shall close with some thoughts about the question of its

legitimacy in the present climate of thought. The particular views may be at odds with

traditional Swedenborgianism, but I believe they represent fairly well the direction in

which the evidence points.

First of all, I find a distinct ambiguity in Swedenborg's theological works concerning the

centrality of Scripture, and I find this ambiguity quite understandable. We are dealing

with a Swede born toward the close of the seventeenth century and raised in a devout

Lutheran household, with a father who would become a bishop. He was impressed from his

earliest years with the principle of sola Scriptura--that only "the Word," the Old and New

Testaments, conveyed the authoritative voice of God. Luther himself had depended heavily

on this principle in countering the authority of Catholic tradition and hierarchy, and

however much orthodox Lutherans might appeal to reason, it was still recognized that no

doctrine could be given consideration which did not have a Scriptural basis.

During his university days, Swedenborg encountered and was enchanted by the new wave of

empirical science, and immersed himself in it. He eventually assumed a position on

Sweden's Board of Mines, and wrote copiously and capably on scientific subjects. When he

was in his forties, he began a massive project which can best be described as an attempt

to master the science of anatomy in order to develop an empirical description of the soul.

As the conviction developed that this huge labor was going to fail in its primary goal, he

began to have paranormal experiences, which in the year 1745 culminated in his

experiencing a call from the Divine to a new career.

In view of his Lutheran upbringing, it is not surprising that he heard this "call" as a

commission to disclose the deeper meaning of Scripture, that this is what he set out to

do, and that of the twenty-four volumes of the standard English edition of the theological

works he published, fourteen are exegetical. The first work off the press after his change

of vocation was Arcana Coelestia, a verse-by-verse treatment of Genesis and Exodus that

ran to eight folio volumes in its Latin first edition and extends to twelve octavo volumes

in English. Somewhat later, he published a commentary on the book of Revelation which

occupies two octavo volumes in English translation.

Swedenborgian scholars have paid little attention to clear indications that Swedenborg

began the Arcana Coelestia with the express intent of continuing it to the end of

Scripture.<1> I have elsewhere proposed reasons for his change of strategy.<2> Here I

would mention only a possible factor which is the other side of the ambiguity I mentioned

earlier, namely that his paranormal experience convinced him that the Divine provided in

every religion sufficient truth for the leading of a heavenly life. As a specific

instance, he describes "Mohammedan heavens," and states that Muhammad's rigid monotheism

was permitted under Providence to prevent the spread of a Christianity that had

degenerated into idolatry.<3>

To place his method of Scripture interpretation in the larger context of his thought,

then, we mey begin by observing that metaphysically, he took omnipresence very seriously.

It does seem as though the divine were not the same in one person as in another--that it

were different, for example, in a wise person than in a simple one, different in an

elderly person than in an infant. But this appearance is deceptive. The person is a

recipient, and the recipient or recipient vessel may vary. A wise person is a recipient of

divine love and divine wisdom more aptly and therefore more fully than a simple person,

and an elderly person who is also wise more than an infant or child. Still, the divine is

the same in the one as it is in the other . . . .

The Divine is also the same in the largest and smallest of all created things which are

not alive . . . .<4>

Perceiving the Divine, then, was not so much a matter of what one was looking at as it was

a matter of how one was looking. The following quotation is moderately long, but it will

relate very directly to our discussion of Swedenborg's method of Scripture interpretation.

There are two lights from which we receive light, the light of the world and the light of

heaven. The light of the world comes from the sun; the light of heaven comes from the

Lord. The world's light is for the natural or outer person, therefore for the matters in

that person. Even though it may not seem as though these matters belong to that light,

they nevertheless do, for nothing can be grasped by the natural person except by means of

the kinds of thing that occur and appear in this subsolar world. This means they must have

some trace of form from the world's light and shade. All the concepts of time, all the

concepts of space, so significant to the natural person that thinking would be impossible

without them, pertain to this light as well. In contrast, heaven's light is for the

spiritual or inner person. Our more inward mind, the locus of concepts we call abstract,

is in that light. People are unaware of this even though they refer to their discernment

as sight and attribute light to it. This is because as long as they are involved in

worldly and physical concerns they can perceive only the kinds of thing that are proper to

the world's light. Heaven's light is from the Lord alone: all heaven is in that light: . .


Between these lights--or between things in heaven's light and things in the world's

light--there is a responsiveness when the outer or natural person is acting as one with

the inner or spiritual person, that is, when the former is serving the latter. Then the

things that happen in the world's light are portrayals of the kinds of thing that happen

in heaven's light.<5>

The word "responsiveness" in the preceding quotation has been chosen in preference to the

more traditional translation "correspondence," in part because Swedenborg in one instance

describes the ear as "corresponding" to the air and to sound,<6> but in general because

the relationship is consistently portrayed as an active one. The spiritual world, in this

view, is the world of causes, and the material world is the world of effects.<7>

Scripture, or more precisely for Swedenborg, the Word, is a special instance of this

general principle. It is not unique in containing spiritual meaning.

Each and every thing in nature and its three kingdoms has something active within it from

the spiritual world. If there were not this kind [of force] within it, absolutely nothing

in the natural world would actuate [the process of] cause and effect, so nothing whatever

would result. What is present in natural things from the spiritual world is called the

force inherent from first creation, but it is the energy [conatus]: when it ceases, action

or motion ceases. This is why the whole visible world is a theater that portrays the

spiritual world.<8>

Like everything else, Scripture is composed in "the language of correspondences," as a

material result of spiritual causes. It is unique in focusing explicitly on the Lord and

his kingdom,<9> and in doing so in unbroken series.<10>

The "language of correspondences," for Swedenborg, is no arcane code, but a set of causal


The most universal principle is that the Lord is heaven's sun, and is the source of all

light in the other life. To angels and spirits (or to people in the other life) nothing

whatever of the world's light is visible--the world's light, which comes from the sun, is

nothing but profound darkness to angels. From heaven's sun or the Lord there comes not

only light, but warmth as well, but the light is spiritual and the warmth is spiritual.

To the eyes of spiritual beings, the light looks like light, but because of its source it

contains intelligence and wisdom. Also, by the senses of spiritual beings the warmth is

perceived as warmth, but because of its source, there is love within it. So too love is

called spiritual warmth and causes the warmth of human life, and intelligence is called

spiritual light and causes the light of human life. From this universal correspondence

flow the rest. For each and every reality goes back to the good, which is a matter of

love, and the true, which is a matter of intelligence.<11>

He would see an inherent, universal validity in images of light and darkness, height and

depth, nearness and remoteness, nourishment, growth and decay, marriage, conception, and

birth--a kind of broad but invariant meaning in all the laws of physics and biology.

Through this lens, for example, the creation story becomes an image of the formation of

the human soul, with the gift of light leading first to the distinction between heavenly

and earthly concerns, then the gradual structuring of the earthly concerns, the formation

of primary "heavenly" allegiances, and the growth of increasingly complex and living

affections and thoughts, until finally there is a person who can truly be regarded as

human, as being in the image and likeness of the Divine.<12>

In most general terms, the spiritual content of Scripture is presented as de-scribing

spiritual processes. On a relatively accessible level, this process is a kind of history

of religion, the story of ups and downs in the spiritual state of humanity. On a deeper

level, it is the story of the spiritual growth of the human individual; and on the deepest

level, it is the story of the reconciliation of human and Divine in the Christ. In each

case, the first eleven chapters of Genesis (creation through the tower of Babel) form a

kind of prologue, and the plot proper starts with the call of Abram. The insistence of God

and the reluctance of humanity lends itself to being used as imagery, and it has been

particularly appealing to Swedenborgians that the portrayals of God as tyrannical and

vindictive emerge quite naturally as human projections of our own fear and anger.

It is in fact not difficult to look at the overall story from the call of Abram to the

descent of the Holy City and see distinct phases in it. The rudimentary plot of struggling

to found an earthly kingdom, having that kingdom collapse, and then having its promise

transmuted into "the kingdom of heaven" in the Gospels can be seen as imaging a general

life pattern of striving for earthly goals, discovering them to be hollow, and beginning

to live for deeper values.

Is this a valid approach to Scripture in the present climate of thought? It is not easy to

give a simple "yes" or a simple "no." As I suggested at the outset, the most forbidding

aspect of Swedenborg's treatment of Scripture is surely its detail. He himself never gives

us the kind of overview I have just suggested. He starts at the beginning and proceeds

verse by verse. Every event, every person, every place in Genesis and Exodus is assigned a

meaning. Some who have made the effort to master the vocabulary have avowed themselves

convinced by its consistency, though at the risk of making interpretation a relatively

mechanical procedure. The most thorough study of the principles of interpretation, William

Frederic Pendleton's The Science of Exposition,<13> indicates clearly that Swedenborg is

talking about a rather subtle and complex process. One must pay particular attention, for

example, to "the series"--Swedenborg's way of insisting that passages are not to be pulled

out of context; and the mood of a passage may be as vital a clue to its meaning as any

particular word or phrase.

Especially, Swedenborg insists repeatedly that the attitude of the reader is critical.

I have been told by angels that the Lord's Word is a dead letter, but that while it is

being read it is brought to life by the Lord in accord with each individual's ability. It

comes to life according to [one's] life of compassion [charitatis] and state of innocence,

with immeasurable variety.<14>

If one is reading it as historian, then, the kind of meaning Swedenborg is primarily

concerned with will be irrelevant. If one is reading it to marshal support for

preconceived theological stances, the same will hold true. There is little question what

attitude Swedenborg advocates, or why.

It is recognized that there are many people in the church who are influenced by the Lord's

Word and devote a great deal of labor to reading it. But there are few who do so with a

view to being taught about the truth. Most of them actually stay within their own dogma

and just work to confirm it from the Word. They seem to be involved in an affection for

the truth, but they are not. The only people who are involved in an affection for the

truth are those who love to be taught about what is true, that is, to know what is true,

and who search the scriptures with this end in view. No one is involved in this affection

except those who are involved in what is good--that is, in compassion toward the neighbor,

and even more so those who are in a love for the Lord. For them, the good itself is

flowing into the true and producing the affection, since the Lord is present in that


I would urge that there is both wisdom and pertinence to the statement of the obvious in

the first part of this quotation, namely that people come to Scripture with a variety of

purposes. This impinges directly on the question of the validity of spiritual

interpretation, since it forces us to ask the question, "Valid for what--or for whom?"

Within the framework of Swedenborg's metaphysics, his method of scripture interpretation

is not only valid, but virtually inescapable. The whole physical world is a theater

expressive of the Divine:

The universe in its greatest and smallest parts, in its first and its last forms, is so

full of divine love and divine wisdom that we could say it is divine love and divine

wisdom in image . . . . The created universe is an image that portrays the God-Man, and .

. . his love and wisdom are . . . presented in the universe in an image.<16>

If we look, we can find the Divine represented everywhere.

The exegetical pluralism that follows from the variety of purposes is certainly timely.

While there is a tendency at present to focus on its excesses, decon-structionism has left

us with the conviction that there can be no complete or definitive exegesis of any text.

Further, social concerns have led to approaches to Scripture with avowed agendas, such as

those of feminist and liberation theologies, and the field of Biblical scholarship, once

monopolized by historical criticism, is now bewilderingly diverse. The academic world has

its criteria for responsible scholarship, and the clergy of mainline churches have, by and

large, been exposed to these criteria and impressed by them.

Some recent approaches focus on larger units of text. "Biblical literary critics of the

new breed concur with redaction and canonical critics in trying to illumine how the entire

composition of a biblical writing is to be read in its integrity."<17> ". . . the text as

it stands is the proper object of study in that it offers a total, self-contained literary

meaning . . . ."<18> This tendency to look at the larger sweep of the story could be

cordial to a Swedenborgian aproach. However, what is sought by such methods is not so much

guidance for a life of compassion toward the neighbor as it is an understanding of the

ways in which the narrative took its final form. There is resistance in academic circles

to starting from the assumption that the Bible has some special nature, place, or

authority, though at the same time, there is the recognition that it does have special

authority for many people.

I would suggest that a significant factor in resistance to modes of interpretation such as

Swedenborg's is a rarely articulated belief that God does not talk in arbitrary codes.

The whole notion that the multiple authors of Scripture could have written a massive

allegory without ever realizing it runs counter to contemporary notions of the nature of

the Divine. It assumes a kind of manipulation of people that may have been acceptable in

Biblical or even medieval times, but which has been out of fashion since the


As I noted earlier, though, within the context of Swedenborg's own theology, the

relationship between literal text and spiritual message is not seen as arbitrary. It would

certainly be idle to pretend that this theological context is widely accepted, and there

is need of some rationale for spiritual interpretation, some rationale acceptable on

contemporary grounds. I am particularly grateful for the opportunity this occasion affords

to explore an approach that has occurred to me only recently as perhaps beginning to

bridge the gap between spiritual interpretations and Biblical scholarship.

Most broadly put, it is that the interdependence between observer and observed means that

every statement will say something about both. Obviously, the Bible reports only a minute

fragment of "what actually happened," and that fragment is (1) selected by what people

regarded as significant and (2) shaped by their notions of what was plausible. It

reflects, that is, human values and human notions of intelligible process.

For example, the pattern of small beginnings, effort in the face of adversity, and

ultimate success is presumed by our experiences of childhood and maturing. Looking at the

complexity of "what actually happened in history," sorting through accounts given from a

variety of perspectives, narrators will tend to fashion an account that "makes sense" to

them, one therefore that reflects their own experience. Given a text that represents not a

single author but generations, even millennia, of "authors," we might reasonably expect a

measure of universality, a relative transcendence of individual bias.

Let me offer a contemporary parallel. We are currently being challenged to rethink the

significance of Columbus's voyage of five hundred years ago. How we understand that event

is strongly influenced by our own values--does it represent the spread of the blessings of

civilization, or the triumph of might over right, or some combination of the two? How we

write the story says a great deal about ourselves. If we look back to a time before the

writing of history was an academic discipline, before scholarly detachment was a

recognized virtue, then the Bible offers us a unique window into the human psyche.

If it is legitimate to use the Bible to explore fundamental assumptions about human nature

and process, then what Swedenborg offers is at least an hypothesis about the language by

which these assumptions are communicated. It would be a language of what we might call

"organic symbolism" not unlike the language of Jungian archetypes, and with a similar

claim to universality. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to its acceptance remains its

formidable detail.

The basic validity of the whole enterprise remains conditional, though. It depends on

agreement that it is legitimate to look to Scripture for self-understanding, and also on

agreement that some standing be granted to such criteria as "compassion toward the

neighbor and love for the Lord." These are not readily accessible to academic evaluation;

so I would hazard the guess that they constitute a significant obstacle to the

consideration of Swedenborg's system in academic circles.




<1>:In the work itself, there are anticipations of treatment of passages in

Leviticus, Joshua, and Judges, and the printer's advertisement for an English

translation (sponsored by Swedenborg) of the second volume explicitly describes

the work as part of a treatment of "the whole Bible." Cf. Robert Hindmarsh,

Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church (London: Hodson & Son, 1861), p.


<2>:Cf."A Rationale for Swedenborg's Writing Sequence, 1749-1771," in Robin

Larsen, ed., Emanual Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision (New York: Swedenborg

Foundation. 1988), pp. 293-297.

<3>:Cf. Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence (New York: Swedenborg

Foundation), n. 255, also ___________________, True Christian Religion (New

York: Swedenborg Foundation), n. 831. As is customary in Swedenborgian studies,

references are not to pages but to paragraph numbers, which are uniform in all

editions. Volumes of the Standard Edition in English are reprinted by the

Swedenborg Foundation as needed, so precise publication dates have little


<4>:_______________, Divine Love and Wisdom (New York: Swedenborg Foundation),

nn. 77ff.

<5>:____________________, Arcana Coelestia (New York: Swedenborg Foundation),

n. 3223.

<6>:ibid., n. 4523.

<7>:ibid., n. 2993.

<8>:ibid., n. 5173:2.

<9>:ibid., n. 155.

<10>:ibid., nn. 3304:3, 4442:e.

<11>:Ibid., n. 3636.

<12>:For a very capable summary by a non-Swedenborgian of Swedenborg's

treatment of the creation story, cf. Henry Corbin, "Herméneutique Spirituelle

Comparée (I. Swedenborg - II. Gnose Ismaélienne)", in Eranos Jahrbuch, 1964,

pp. 71-176. The similarities he points out lend some credence to the notion

that the symbolism is not simply arbitrary.

<13>:William Frederic Pendelton, The Science of Exposition (Bryn Athyn: Academy

of the New Church, 1915).

<14>:Ibid., n. 1776.

<15>:Emanuel Swedenborg, Arcana Coelestia (New York: Swedenborg Foundation), n.


<16>:____________________, Divine Love and Wisdom (New York: Swedenborg

Foundation), n. 52.

<17>:Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction

(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 24.

<18>:ibid., p. 22.

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