Sunday, February 2, 1992

Location - Bridgewater

There was a great deal of pleasure and benefit for me in working with Bob on the compact biography,

and we are both sorry we do not have the final product in hand to show you. To start with a very

general observation, Swedenborg is emerging for me as more of a believable human being--no less

remarkable in his abilities, no less led by the Lord, but led in ways that are more like the things we

experience. I have three examples in mind.

The first centers in his transition from scientist to seer, and involves developing a consistent

picture out of some relatively scattered clues. The picture that emerges looks like this. As

Swedenborg was working on anatomy, he began to have experiences of what is called "photism." That is,

when the resolution of a particular problem would occur to him, he would "see a kind of light in his

mind, which he interpreted as a sign that the solution was right. This was a relatively vague kind of

guidance, but he paid attention to it.

As a kind of next step in the process, he began to record and interpret his dreams. There is one small

indication that what prompted this was the simple fact that he had begun to remember his dreams. The

first several dreams are sort of "listed by title only," and this list was evidently compiled after

several nights of dreams that had been remembered but not recorded. Once he realized that his dreams

might be trying to tell him something, he jotted down notes about the earlier ones, and started

recording and pondering the new ones on a daily basis.

Wilson Van Dusen has done an excellent job of illuminating the spiritual process involved in these

dreams. We find Swedenborg wrestling with his sense of mission to some extent, but in large measure

facing two huge issues: his pride in his abilities and accomplishments, and the extent to which his

intellectualism left him emotionally flat. We find times of elation and depression, with a growing

sense of humility and a growing openness to feeling.

After about a year of this came the first major turning point, a vision of the Lord at Easter time in

Delft, Holland. He felt and saw himself cradled in the Lord's arms, and received the command to do as

he had promised. It was a shaking experience, and after he wrestled with his doubts about it, he

concluded that it was genuine. However, the instruction was not at all explicit, and he seems to have

groped for the direction he should take. It was apparently after this that the little work The Worship

and Love of God began to take shape. This is unique in his output--a kind of poetic, mythical look at


Almost exactly a year after the Delft vision, at Easter time in 1745, he had a second experience.

This took place in an inn in London, and marked both his specific commission and the beginning of his

open experiences of the spiritual world. Swedenborgian scholars have cast doubt on this experience

because he apparently made no note of it at the time. The only account of it comes to us at third

hand, from a report of a conversation he had with a friend late in his life.

However, there is compelling other evidence in The Word Explained, which he started writing later that

year. In one entry he mentions that he has been having these experiences for eight months. Shortly

after, he is even more specific, and says, ". . . I have now lived among those who are in Heaven for a

space of eight months . . . namely from the middle of April 1745, to the 29th of January, or the 9th

of February, 1746, except one month during which I was on my journey into Sweden, where I arrived on

the 19th day of August, old style" (W.E. 1003).

In other words, he did not just work along as scientist until the light suddenly dawned all at once.

He began to get little hints, and followed them as they led deeper and deeper into the issues he had

to face if he was to become the servant the Lord needed.

The second example follows closely from this first. In the late account of the London experience,

Swedenborg described his specific commission as being to disclose the spiritual sense of scripture. I

had not realized until Bob and I were working on this just how strong the evidence is that he

interpreted this quite narrowly, though I had begun to suspect it. The most compelling item comes from

an advertisement for the English translation of the Arcana Coelestia, where it is described as

intended to a treatment of the whole Bible. To this can be added the fact that on several occasion in

Arcana Coelestia itself, Swedenborg expresses his intent to deal with this or that matter when he gets

to Leviticus, or Joshua, or Judges. Add to this the fact that when he started to write Arcana

Coelestia, he had already drafted The Word Explained, which is all about the spiritual sense of

scripture, and is almost as massive as Arcana Coelestia itself. Add to this that he had brushed up on

his Hebrew and his Greek and compiled his own very substantial Bible index, which was no light task in

the days before filing cards. The one apparently "different" thing he did was the Spiritual Diary, his

day-to-day record of his visionary experiences; and these experiences were actually a primary source

for his new understanding of Scripture. Time after time, he gathered the meaning of a Biblical image

by discovering what angels were thinking about when they saw a horse or a tree.

It doesn't take much thought to discern a pattern here. That is, the first steps he took toward

fulfilling his commission centered very much in the Bible. The evidence indicated that when he sat

down to start the Arcana Coelestia, he fully expected to keep going until, God willing, he reached the

end of Revelation.

As we well know, he got only to the end of Exodus, and then turned to other, very different modes of

presentation. In fact, it is hard to imagine anything more different from Arcana Coelestia than Earths

in the Universe, Heaven and Hell is certainly much more in the popular vein as well.

I leave you to read the compact biography to see what we do with this shift. At the moment, I want to

look only at the background of this initial exclusive focus on the Bible. It is not only

understandable, but almost predictable on the grounds of his Lutheran upbringing, so let me back up a

few centuries.

Luther was profoundly distressed at the abuses of clerical power he saw in his church. These abuses

were sanctioned by church tradition, and had the authority of the Holy See behind them. There was no

way whatever Luther as a local priest could argue against this tradition on the basis simply of his

personal conviction. He needed an authority on his side, and he found it in Scripture. In consequence,

it was absolutely central to the Lutheran church that the Bible was the sole and ultimate authority in

matters of theology. Human reason, human experience, creedal formulations, church tradition, the

convictions of the clergy--all these had to be tested against the plain and obvious meaning of the

Bible. Swedenborg's father might question the orthodox interpretation of faith alone, but he could not

be a Lutheran clergyman if he had doubts on the principle of Scripture alone. Swedenborg could not

expect his theology to be taken seriously by the church if it rested its case on any other authority.

The third issue that became clearer to me involved the nature and purpose of Swedenborg's last

published work, True Christian Religion. Traditionally, this has been regarded as a final summary of

his theology. If it is, it is surprising that it has so little to say about heaven and hell, marriage,

and providence, which are surely important features of the theology. It is also surprising that it has

a whole chapter on "imputation," which is not a significant feature in his earlier works, at least

under that title. Most striking to me is the fact that he has a separate chapter on each of the three

"persons" of the trinity. His doctrine is not changing at all: the point is still that these three are

"*essentials" and not "people." However, I have found no precedent whatever in his earlier works for

this kind of separate treatment.

Bob Kirven dropped the first clue some years ago by noting that the outline of the work is not unlike

outlines of standard Lutheran theologies of the time. This began to fit into a larger picture with the

realization that as he was working on this project, he and his followers were being accused of heresy.

Could it be that the main purpose of True Christian Religion was to refute this charge?

If he were to make this attempt, he would have to base his arguments on authorities accepted by the

Lutheran church. He did so, even to the extent of an unprecedented use of the Epistles. Previously, he

had described them as useful books, but not part of "the Word." In preparation for the writing of True

Christian Religion, he indexed them in some detail, and in using them he even occasionally included

them as citations from "the Word."

He also took pains to argue that the classical creeds were valid if they were properly understood; and

of course, he based all his theological positions on ample quotations from the Bible. On this latter

point, it is particularly instructive to compare the first chapter of True Christian Religion with the

corresponding first chapter of Divine Love and Wisdom. They are saying many of the same things, but

the points in Divine Love and Wisdom are rested essentially on common sense and human experience, with

almost no citation of Scripture whatever. These very same points in True Christian Religion are

presented as conclusions from the literal sense of "the Word."

In other words, here as earlier I find Swedenborg having fairly specific and understandable purposes

in mind for the particular works he undertook to write. This has raised some objections from

individuals who see this as depreciating the Lord's role in the revelatory process, but for me these

objections rest in a false dichotomy. Everything we do is "as if of self," whether we realize it or

not. The Lord normally works through our own understandings and purposes, not against them. He does

not want us to become robots responsive only to his programming. He wants us to exercise and develop

our own best judgment, and works through those efforts toward ends which we may not fathom.

One individual protested a mention that Swedenborg apparently learned Hebrew at Uppsala from a

converted Jew and devoted Cabalist. Such an individual would surely have taught that there was hidden

meaning in the Old Testament, "even in the very letters," and that shapes of the letters themselves

were significant. To me this does not mean that when Swedenborg writes that the spiritual sense is to

be found "even in the very letters," he is merely echoing what he had been taught years before. It may

just as well mean that the Lord found in this teacher someone who would freely and willingly convey a

message to the young man.

When Swedenborg said that all his scientific training had been preparation for his task as revelator,

he clearly did not mean that he had known all along that he was being prepared and what he was being

prepared for. He means that the Lord's providence was working in ways which he would be able to see

only in retrospect. He was no exception to the principle that we are not allowed to see how providence

is working in the present. No, he had his own agendas throughout his life, and by following them

faithfully, and especially by heeding the clues from the Lord as they occurred, he was led to the role

with which we are most familiar. It was a role in which he continued to make decisions "as if of

himself," according to his best understanding of his commission. The Lord was no less present in that

process than in our own lives.

contact phil at for any problems or comments