Its Validity in the Late Twentieth Century

Friday, July 7, 1992

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


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


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


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 relationships.

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, to 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

thoughtfulness [charitatis] and state of innocence, with immeasurable


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 focused on what

is good-that is, on thoughtfulness 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 good.<15>

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, deconstructionism 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 thoughtfulness 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 Enlightenment.

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 "thoughtfulness 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.

<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 relevance.

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


<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.


<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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