The Authority of the Writings
by Geoffrey S. Childs
(Delivered at the Second Session of the Eastern Canada District Assembly, Blair, Ontario, November 9, 1963.)
The Divine itself is infinite, and as such is unknowable to angels and to men. Even the highest angels are finite, and as such can have no comprehension of an infinite God. There is no ratio between the Infinite and the finite; there is no way in which finite man can reach out to and understand what is infinite.* For this reason, if there is to be any contact between God and man, the Lord must cloak His infinity in what is finite. Inevitably He must appear to man through what is finite. Thus the Arcana states that "things which are infinite and eternal are presented before the angels in appearances that are finite."**
* Cf. AC 3404: 2. ** Ibid.
Now the Divine good and the Divine truth with the Lord are infinite. As such, they are entirely beyond the comprehension of finite beings; but it is essential to man that he know of the Divine good and truth, if he is to have any hope of salvation. This, then, is the problem, if we may so put it, that faces the Lord: man must know good and truth for his salvation; yet these in their origin, in their pure Divinity, are beyond man's understanding. It follows that, in order to instruct man, the Lord had to accommodate Divine good and truth to finite minds. He had to veil infinite truth with finite appearances, to cloak infinite truth in finite garb, so that men and angels could understand it.
The Writings present the problem under discussion, and its solution, in these words: "If Divine truths themselves were to be opened, they would not be received by those who are in the doctrinal things of faith, because they surpass all their rational apprehension, thus all their belief, and consequently nothing of good from the Lord could flow in. For good from the Lord, or Divine good, can inflow only into truths, because truths are the vessels of good."*
* AC 3387:1
Thus Divine truths themselves are beyond man. What, then, is the Word? Do not the Writings and the former revelations give us Divine truth itself? From what follows it would seem that the Writings cannot contain Divine truths; but we would ask that judgment be withheld until the teachings have been unfolded. We read: "In order . . . that man may nevertheless have truths [despite Divine truths passing his apprehension] . . . appearances of truth are given to everyone according to his apprehension; which appearances are acknowledged as truths because they are such that Divine things can be in them."*
* AC 3387:1, 2
The point we are stressing here-that Divine truth must be clothed in finite appearances in order to be understood-is amplified in chapter twenty-six of Arcana Coelestia, which teaches that there are, in general, "appearances of truth of three degrees," and that these appearances were "adjoined to truth Divine in order that truths and their doctrinal things might be received, and that a church might come into existence."* These are "appearances of truth of a higher degree which are in the internal sense of the Word. The angels are in these appearances. Appearances of truth of a lower degree, which are in the interior sense of the Word, [are open to] men . . . who are of the internal church . . . [There are] appearances of truth of a still lower degree, which are of the literal sense of the Word; in these appearances those men may be who are of the external church."**
* AC 3357 ** AC 3356-3360
In ordinary conversation we use the term, appearance, to denote the presence of an illusion, that is: "This is how it appears, but actually it is different." It is obvious, of course, that this is not what the Writings mean by the term, appearance of truth, in the case under study. In this theological use of the word, appearance, there is no connotation of what is false, of what is an illusion. In the usage before us, the word, appearing, means the Divine appearing on a plane lower than the infinite, the Divine appearing through finite coverings. Thus the three degrees of Divine appearances in the Word may be termed, genuine appearances, to avoid any implication of what is false being present.
With these definitions and teachings in mind, how would the truths revealed in the Writings be defined? We know that they cannot be infinite Divine truths, which are incomprehensible.* We know that the Writings were written by the Lord to be comprehended rationally. The Writings must consist of appearances of truth-genuine appearances of Divine truth revealed for the rational plane of the mind.** This definition of the Writings as presenting appearances of truth is supported particularly by a passage which calls the "celestial and spiritual truths, such as are in . . . the heavens and . . . in the church . . . appearances of truth, and also rational things enlightened by the Divine."*** This applies not just to man's reception of the Writings but to the Writings themselves; otherwise the Writings would be incomprehensible to finite man.
* See AC 3387:1 ** Can. Prologue 1; AC 3358-3360, 3387:1; TCR 508; AC 3368:2 *** AC 3386:2
Now we come to the crucial question. If the Writings present "appearances of truth," can they be called Divine! Are the Writings Divine truth or are they not? In an age when many brilliant men say that all truth is relative, does it turn out that the Writings, too, are relative-not absolutely Divine! This conclusion might be drawn out of the definition of the Writings as "appearances of truth," and thereby the authority of the Writings would be undermined. Fortunately, in this difficulty, the Writings themselves come to our aid. We read:
"In the supreme sense, all things in the Word have relation to the Lord; and the Lord is doctrine itself, that is, the Word, not only as to the supreme sense therein, but also as to the internal sense, and even as to the literal sense; for the literal sense is representative and significative of the internal sense, and the internal sense is representative and significative of the supreme sense. And that which in the Word is representative and significative is in its essence that which is represented and signified, thus it is the Divine of the Lord; for a representative is nothing but an image of Him who is represented; and is in an image the Lord himself presented to view."*
* AC 3393
Note the teaching: "That which in the Word is representative and significative is in its essence that which is represented and signified, thus it is the Divine of the Lord." The Writings are the Word, for the Word is any accommodation of infinite Divine truth written by the Lord Himself.* The Writings are also a representation, a re-presentation, of the Lord; they are the Lord represented to the rational mind of man.** Therefore the Writings are in their essence that which they represent: they are the Lord; and their Divine authority is therefore absolute. They are the Lord speaking to man's rational mind, appearing before that mind. There is not here what is relative, but rather the absolute of Divine authority.
* See AC 3432:3, 8200, 9349:2 ** See AC 3358-3360, 3387; TCR 508:3; AC 3368:2; TCR 779-780
A negative thinker-one who proceeds in his reasoning from the negative principle spoken of in the Writings*-will reject this assertion. How, he will ask, can what is obviously finite be called Divine? Externally viewed, this question is valid; for, externally viewed, the Writings are finite. They are merely a collection of philosophical teachings ultimated in finite paper and type. Viewed from externals alone, nothing of the Divine can be seen within these books written through Swedenborg; what is seen then is only the finite covering. But when they are viewed from within, by the spiritual-rational, the finite coverings are removed as it were, and the Divine Human of the Lord is disclosed before the spiritual sight. The Lord is seen appearing before man in His Word.
* AC 2568
Thus man's attitude towards the Writings depends entirely upon the principle from which he thinks. The affirmative principle, based on spiritual thought, leads one to see the Writings to be Divine; the negative principle, based on natural thought only, leads one to see the Writings as finite and, therefore, merely human. The spiritual-rational sees the essence; the natural-rational, the outer form. To relate this with an earlier address: the purely inductive reasoner adopts the negative principle, and sees a thousand limitations in the Writings; whereas the man whose thinking principle is deductive, based on belief in the Divinity of the Lord, sees the Divinity of the Writings.*
* "The Serpent and the Man Child," NEW CHURCH LIFE, 1960, PP. 536-547
If we have managed only to confuse your thinking concerning the Writings rather than clarify it, then we would ask you to think of this example. If there is a person we love and respect, our regard for him is not based on his physical appearance, his clothes, rather than on his character. His character is the essential man; it is the man himself, and we know it. So is it with the Writings. We do not regard the external appearances of the Writings-their clothing; rather do we look to the character or spirit within them-and that is the Lord in His Divine Human. We think then from essence, and all purely lower thinking is blindness.
We will now leave the plane of more technical theology and concentrate rather on the regenerating man's reactions to the Writings. The intriguing teaching is that this reaction varies considerably according to man's mental state. There will be times when he sees the Writings to be the crown of revelations-the highest revelation of Divine truth. At other times he will see only that the Writings are rational appearances of truth, without Divine authority. Thus we read:
Modern man needs his revelation to be on the rational plane. This is evidenced by the very nature of the Writings. Yet this immediately involves us in a conundrum, for it is the weakness of the spiritual man that he cannot see rational truth to be a Divine revelation. Once he understands the rational teachings of the Writings he feels that the ideas are his own. He cannot really see how those rational ideas in his own mind can be called the Lord's.
Concerning the limitation of the spiritual man, the Writings state that "the [regenerated] spiritual man is in no other perception than that . . . if truth were rational it could not be Divine [that is, from the Lord]; thus that if it were Divine [or from the Lord] it would have nothing in common with what is rational."* One evidence of this is the lament sometimes heard that the Writings are too coldly rational. If they are a revelation from the Lord, it is asked, why cannot they be more poetic, more ethereal, more emotionally and imaginatively gripping! Why cannot they be like even the poetry of Shakespeare, or at least the poetic parts of the Old and New Testaments! This is one confirmation that the spiritual plane of the mind is not fully capable of seeing a rational revelation as the highest possible form of Divine revelation. There are other evidences of this truth as well.
* AC 3394:3
Because of this limitation in the spiritual regenerate we are told that "such persons are desirous that the things of faith should be believed in simplicity, without any mental view of them on the part of the rational, not being aware that not anything of faith, not even its deepest secret, is comprehended by any man without some rational idea."* Their desire for simplicity of belief without examination may, we are told, "protect them against those who reason about everything from what is negative as to whether it is so; but to those who are in the affirmative concerning the Word such a position [about simple belief] is hurtful, as it may thus take away from anyone his freedom of thought, and even bind the conscience to that which is heretical."** The highest ideal, then, is not to be bound by "things of faith believed in simplicity," but rather with love and freedom to explore and delight in revealed rational truth.
* AC 3394:3 ** Ibid.
The spiritual man, whose limitations are drawn here, has other pitfalls to avoid! He has to avoid denying that the Writings are Divine. This is a temptation to him, because at times he cannot see how the rational truths of the Writings are anything but human. The direct teaching is that "the spiritual man is in no other perception than that . . . if truth were rational it could not be Divine."* Perhaps this explains why so many who know of the Writings, and have even read widely in them, cannot accept their Divinity.
* AC 3394
There is one further danger to those of the spiritual genius. They are confronted with two contradictory ideas, and the clashing of these may result in a twisted conclusion. The contradictory ideas are these: the Writings are the Divine truth of the Lord; rational truth perceived by man is his own. When such men see the rational truths of the Writings in their own minds, and believe these truths to be Divine, they may conclude that Divine truth is actually their own. They may then claim a certain Divinity to themselves, stealing what is the Lord's. History testifies how often this very thing has been done. To avoid this spiritual theft, man must keep certain revealed principles in mind. One of these is that man's mind is finite, and he will therefore always see the Writings finitely. He can perceive that there is Divinity within the Writings, even the very Infinite; but even this perception with him is finite! The Lord alone can see the full infinity within the Writings. Another principle which must be kept in mind is that any perception of the Word that man does have is a gift of the Lord to him; it is not man's own.
It is the celestial among men who see the Writings most clearly, who see beyond others that the Writings are the Divine Human of the Lord. Thus they take inmost delight in the revealed rational truth; to them it is Divine revelation in its most perfect and delightful form. It is their joy and inspiration to explore and perceive more and more of rational truth, ever extending the horizons of their minds.
At the same time, they are able to acknowledge fully that "all good and truth flow in from the Lord; and also that there is a perceptive power of good and truth that is communicated and appropriated to them by the Lord, and that constitutes their delight, bliss and happiness."*
* AC 3394:2
When the Arcana speaks here, Chapter 26, of the "celestial," we do not believe that the reference is exclusively to that discretely different celestial genius possessed by the Most Ancient Church-a type of being no longer existing upon earth. Rather do we believe that the term, celestial, here would include the celestial degree of regeneration that is attainable by the spiritual man. That this celestial degree can be attained by the spiritual is evident from the teachings about the seven states of regeneration in the early Arcana. Included also, we believe, would be the celestial remains instilled in infancy. From these celestial remains the adult can receive certain general perceptions early in his regeneration, such, for instance, as that most general perception, that the Writings are Divine. He can perceive, in a limited way, that rational truth is also Divine truth appearing; and he can, sincerely if fleetingly, ascribe his perceptions to the Lord alone. Unless a New Church man could perceive that the Writings are Divine, the New Church would be without a Word!
Within each regenerating New Church man there are many forces operating that affect his idea of the Writings. In his highest perception he sees that the Writings are the Lord with man-the highest revelation of Divine truth; but from his proprium, he would reject all revelation. The spiritual plane within him, as contrasted with the celestial, would in its ordinary states fail to see that the rational statements of the Writings are the Lord speaking; and the very highest of such spiritual states would prefer to believe the Writings in simplicity only, withdrawing from any exploration of their heights.
As New Church men we can choose between these various estimates of the Writings. But the path to light and freedom is opened up only by the highest choice, that of basing our lives on our perception of the Divine authority of the Writings. With this may come a sense of wonder, of childlike wonder, before the beauty of the Lord's truth. What avenues lie before us in the Writings, what marvelous paths to celestial heights! Our hope and prayer is that of the psalm: "O send out Thy light and Thy truth: let them lead me; let them bring me unto Thy holy hill, and to Thy tabernacles. Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy."*
* Psalm 43:3, 4