The Divine Inspiration of Emanuel Swedenborg
by Ormond DeCharms Odhner
PART I: Biblical Inspiration
1. THE PROBLEM
Our body of the New Church, the General Church of the New Jerusalem, has long held that the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg are actually the Word of God. (This, however, is not quite as new an idea as you might think: By as early as 1799, quite a large number of English Newchurchmen apparently held the Writings to be on a plane equal to anything written by Moses or Isaiah, by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, and at least one had called them "the very Word of the Lord.") However, in order that the Writings may really be the Word, two things must be true of them. First, they must contain nothing but a series of truths continuous from the Lord alone. Second, their very word-order must be Divinely chosen.
A great deal that is in the Writings makes it look as though neither of these things could be true of them. And yet, if any of .their truths is from man, spirit, or angel, then, to that same extent, they are not a completely Divine revelation; they are not the Word of God. And if their word-order was of Swedenborg's own choosing, then, though Divine Truths may be contained interiorly within the Writings, the Writings themselves are not Divine truths in ultimate form. At best, they are what some of our fellow New Church men say that they are-works written by a man who had his spiritual eyes opened, and who then did his best to explain what he had heard and seen; unfortunately, however, under this view, he was quite capable of making mistakes.
Now, angels, spirits, and occasionally even devils, told Swedenborg much of what he wrote. He often seems to quote them, word for word. Are these things in the Writings, then, from the Lord alone? Furthermore, Swedenborg frequently complained of the difficulty of putting a spiritual revelation into natural words. (Once, in his manuscripts, we find a place where he wavered seven different times between the choice of two prepositions.) Would the Lord have experienced such difficulty? Was the word- order of the Writings, then, Divinely chosen?
2. OLD TESTAMENT INSPIRATION
Before answering these questions, however, it seems good to sketch briefly the nature of the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments.
Perhaps the most general statement concerning inspiration, since it applies to the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Writings alike, is the following: "Inspiration effects insertion into angelic societies." (TCR 140) The mortal authors of the Word, that is, were Divinely inspired by being inserted into angelic societies.
Old Testament writers, however, apparently were rarely aware of this. Some of them knew that they had experienced visions-Moses, Amos, Ezekiel; occasionally they even had some slight understanding of the spiritual import of their visions, as, for example, Amos: When he saw, in vision, the Lord measuring the wall of Jerusalem and finding it crooked, he knew that this represented Divine judgment upon the spiritual "crookedness" of the Jewish Church and he said so in a very cleverly planned speech. But for the most part, when Old Testament characters or authors saw visions, they thought that the angels then seen had become incarnate:
Now, whenever spirits speak with man, they speak in spiritual language, the language of ideas. This then draws forth from the man's memory suitable words for its mortal clothing. This would be true even with us, should we hear spirits speaking. (Hence the very different styles of writing in the Word.) And in order that these words, for the sake of Scripture, might be Divinely chosen and therefore correspondential, these same angels of Jehovah apparently actually possessed the very bodies of the prophets (as could happen before the Advent), and guided their hands as they wrote. 193 "The spirits," we read, "occupied their bodies, so that scarcely anything was left (of their own) except a consciousness that they were still in existence."* Hence it is said that the inspiration of the Old Testament extends even to the curves of the letters of the Hebrew words.**
* AC 6212. ** AC 1736.
Perhaps this is also the reason why it is said that the prophets sometimes wrote in trance, not even knowing what they wrote until afterwards-a state Swedenborg was once permitted to be in, merely that he might know how the case was. (WE 7006) The more we study the prophets, however, the more are we convinced that the majority of them were fully conscious of what they were doing when they spoke and wrote, at least a majority of the time. Amos certainly planned his tirade against the false worship of Samaria very carefully. Jeremiah, when he heard that the king had burned the scroll on which Jeremiah had written a phillipic against the king, had his scribe or stenographer make out a second copy.
So much, then, for Old Testament inspiration. This part of the Word was, we read, "dictated by the Lord by a living voice." (AR 26) The Lord, who possesses the inmost of every angel, in order that Divine Truth might be embodied in human words; spoke thus to a mortal man and drew forth from that man s memory suitable words to clothe these truths correspondentially; and through these same angels of Jehovah He also guided the man's hands so that he could not write otherwise than as Jehovah dictated.
3. NEW TESTAMENT INSPIRATION
The Biblical New Testament contains three distinct types of revelation: that of the Four Gospels; that of the Apocalypse; and that of the Epistles-Paul's., for example.
a. The Four Gospels
Quite obviously, the Four Gospels were written from the memories of those who wrote them; and yet, to be the Word of God, they, too, must contain nothing but truths continuous from the Lord alone, and they, too, must be written in a Divinely chosen word-order.
Scripture itself indicates how this first requirement was met. The Lord while on earth promised, "The Holy Spirit . . . shall . . . bring all things to your remembrance." That this was fulfilled, we read as follows: "The apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit . . . and the words which they were speaking were given to them."* 194 Again, "The Lord filled them all with His Holy Spirit, but each took thence according to. . . his perception, and followed it up according to his power."**
* SE 1509. ** TCR 154.
This inspiration must have been through angelic societies, since all inspiration effects insertion into angelic societies,-angels Divinely chosen to recall certain things only to the Evangelists' minds. (After all, there were many other things which the Lord did and said which, as John notes, "are not recorded in this book.") But the Gospel writers surely were not aware of this spirit-association; else they would have mentioned it. Probably, therefore, the angels infilled their internal man with certain perceptions and memories of the truth, and this, as it were spontaneously, drew forth from their external memories suitable correspondential words.
Nor were they bodily possessed by spirits. That phenomenon had ended with the Glorification. But being good men, sincerely bent on telling the true story of the Lord's life as they remembered it, they freely chose to write the words thus inspired, although without realizing that they were inspired. As we shall see, this was the mode of Divine inspiration usually enjoyed by Swedenborg.
b. The Apocalypse
When John saw his apocalyptic visions, he was witnessing, in the world of spirits, a representation in the world of spirits of a revelation then being given to the celestial angels concerning the already foreseen end of the Christian Church. He knew he saw and heard spirits, and yet he apparently thought they spoke to him in natural language. Unlike Swedenborg, he seems never to have understood the spiritual meaning of his visions, but wrote them down as a faithful scribe. Evidently, his internal communication with spirits drew forth from his natural mind, when he returned to consciousness therein, suitable words to clothe the things revealed. Note well that with John also this was as it were a spontaneous process.
c. The Epistles
Paul, too, was inspired. The Lord did appear to him. He was "caught up into the third heaven," as he says, and there he saw and heard "things ineffable." Perhaps you remember that he had been a bitter persecutor of the Christians, and that his conversion to Christianity was utterly miraculous, never affecting his heart at all. Immediately after his conversion, instead of seeking out the disciples to learn of the Lord, he spent three years in Arabia in solitude. 195 Perhaps it was there that he figured out his own peculiar brand of Christianity, both from what he had heard from the disciples themselves (for which he hitherto had persecuted them), and especially from his now certain conviction that the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. (He was clever enough to have been able to do that.)
Be that as it may, he was inspired. But when he returned to his earth- life state, he was left to himself to speak and write as he willed. Hence, though the Writings call his epistles "good books for the church," they nevertheless teach that they are not the Word of God, for they do not contain the internal sense. Much in them is from Paul himself1 and their word-order was of his own choosing.
(This, by the way, is what many Christian thinkers today say of all the Word: its general spiritual truths were revealed to its writers-the fact of a creation by God, for example-but that each writer was then left to himself to express those truths as best he could.)
Let us now consider Swedenborg's inspiration - how he received his revelation, and how he wrote it-to see how the Writings, apparently his, are really the Word of God.
1. Intromission into Heaven
Swedenborg was, of course, inserted into angelic societies. His inspiration in this regard was, however, unique: He was granted consciousness on the plane of the spirit, as many other men before him; but he at the same time retained consciousness on the plane of the body. Thus, for example, he tells how he was talking to a spirit in the other world, while at the same time on this earth he was walking in that spirit's funeral procession. Not even John on the isle of Patmos nor Abraham feasting the angels enjoyed consciousness in both worlds at once, nor, apparently, did the men of the Most Ancient Church, although they enjoyed open intercourse with angels. Swedenborg alone, of all men, was granted to be in spiritual light and in natural light at one and the same time, he says.
Being thus conscious in both worlds at once, he was able to compare the two worlds with each other, and thus could learn both the similarities and the differences between the two. He did not receive his revelation by dictation, remember; rather did he, for himself and as of himself, learn the things he revealed, through observation, study, inquiry, and conversation, and then, apparently, proceeded to express these spiritual truths in his own words. (Hence it is that all the speeches of the angels, wherever recorded in the Writings, are phrased in Swedenborg's own peculiar, dry style.)
2. His Method of Learning
Now, the Writings are a rational revelation, as we say. But this implies more than that they contain Divine Truths in rational form. It implies also that they were revealed in a rational manner to a man who rationally understood them. Indeed it is mainly because Swedenborg was able to comprehend rationally the things he wrote-because, that is, he studied his spiritual observations and drew conclusions from them-that the Writings are a rational revelation. 257 Only an adult who had studied and understood science, for example, could give a rational explanation of the apparent rising and setting of the sun.
He was, of course, Divinely led to his rational conclusions, but he formulated them as it were of his own free will. In this there is no contradiction. Some months from now, were I to show you a hoe, a rake, and a packet of seeds, you of your own free will would think of a certain thing. Actually, however, I would have led you to that thought. Thus, in spiritual things, Swedenborg often said that it was "of the Divine auspices of the Lord" that he was led to such and such a place in the other world, where a particular discussion was being held at that time.
Swedenborg had long been searching for spiritual truths in nature, hoping to prove thereby the existence of God and the reality of an eternal soul in human form. Then, in 1743, or 44, when he was fifty-five or fifty-six years old, he saw the Lord, he began to undergo peculiar spiritual experiences, his spiritual eyes were opened, and finally, in 1745 he saw the Lord again, twice the same day, and was told that he had been chosen to explain the spiritual meaning of Scripture to men. He did not rush and publish this news at once, however; a lifetime of experience had taught him to keep silent until he understood his subject. And so, instead, he immediately turned to an exhaustive study of the source of all theology, the Word of God.
Already he had completed a short index to the Bible, but now he began another one, far more extensive. He did this, I conclude, in order that through a comparison of passages wherein any one word is used, he might understand its real significance. And this leads to the further conclusion that he began to see, from his experiences in heaven, that the whole Word contains an inner meaning, a spiritual sense, and that each word of the letter is therefore of great importance.
About three years later he began to study Hebrew, so that he might know the true basic meaning of the words of the Old Testament. (He already knew Greek.) This, again, he must have done for the sake of learning the exact internal sense.
His spiritual experiences may be compared with those of a man who
visits a new country and decides to tell others about it. He used his senses and
his sense so that he might recount the phenomena of that spiritual country and
explain them to his fellow men. He saw, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled, and
drew conclusions from his experiences. Also, of course, he discussed these
things with spirits and angels and learned much from such conversations. 258
So also did he learn that heaven is in .the form of a Grand Man. He noted in his Diary, November 24, 1747, that the removal of certain spirits from him caused an apparently physical sensation, as though something were being withdrawn from his head. Spirits, he then concluded, are within man, as well as outside him. Some are in the head, he wrote.* Four days late he wrote, "I have been taught by a very lively, sensible experience, that the spheres . . . where human souls dwell after death . . . entirely correspond to the members of the human frame." And after much similar experience, he noted on January 18, 1748, "The universal heaven is so formed as entirely to correspond to man in the universal and in the minutest detail."** And here, for the first time, he calls this universal form of heaven a Grand Man. Thus also, of course, he learned the particular correspondences of the human body.
* SD 266. * SD 498.
How did he learn that every spirit is in complete human form? He saw them as such. How, that marriages of conjugial love endure to eternity? He saw all the angels of heaven living in such blessed marriages. How, that man is raised from the dead within three days of death? He saw his own friends wake from death within that time. He saw children who died grow up and become angels. He learned from observation and conversation that all angels work daily at their employments and consider this the only external thing necessary to the existence of charity. He saw evil spirits rush headlong into hell, and drew the obvious conclusion that the Lord casts no one thither. He could rationalize concerning the interrelationship of the two worlds, because he sensed them both at once; and when, for example, he noted certain Abyssinian spirits with him become ineffably happy when he, on earth, heard a certain psalm being sung, he could conclude that .the spiritual world rests upon the natural.
Only gradually, however, did he come to understand the real meaning of the things he thus observed. His progress in this is illustrated in the Word Explained and the Spiritual Diary. (The Word Explained, incidentally, while rarely regarded as part of the canon of the Heavenly Doctrines, nevertheless was written after his spiritual eyes were opened and contains his first attempts to draw forth a spiritual meaning from the Word.) 259 In the Word Explained he writes, "What has been written . . . I am not yet able to confirm so that I can call God to witness concerning it."* Again, that he does not yet know if certain things are God's truths.** Later he perceives that his mental obscurity in some matters came from evil spirits.*** Later, he wonders whether certain things should be published at all: "See how this is to be set forth, that it may be stated prudently," he writes.**** In the Diary he writes in October, 1747, that his understanding of spiritual things had often been taken away; later he said that slips and errors had crept into his writings from evil spirits.***** About a year later he wrote, "I do not yet know this for certain."******
* WE 475. ** WE 1530. *** WE 2876. **** Adv.3: 5021. ***** SD 2873. ****** SD 3812.
He learned the facts of his revelation, the spiritual facts, from observation and experience, and from conversation with spirits and angels. These facts he then studied and pondered over, in order that he might perceive their true significance. And it was not until he himself came to such an understanding of them, that he published them for all the world to read.
3. His Method of Writing
When he wrote down his conclusions, he was, apparently, in freedom to choose his own words. Often he found it difficult-nay, almost impossible to express spiritual truths in natural language, even as we find it difficult to put our thought into words.
Here we read again a passage just quoted: "See how this is .to be set forth, that it may be stated prudently." He had just learned that spirits in the other life can impersonate other spirits and men, and he wondered how he should state this fact, so that it would cause no disturbance.
Hear now a passage from the Arcana:
Swedenborg alone of all revelators had the privilege of apparently selecting his own natural words to phrase the spiritual truths taught him in heaven. 260 But this also was necessary, in order that the Writings may be a revelation of rational truths, rationally revealed, and rationally understood by the medium of their revelation.
4. Learning Through Spirits?
We said at the start that for any inspired writing to be the Word of God, it must contain naught but truths from the Lord alone, and must also be written in a Divinely chosen word-order. But have we not just said that everything in the Writings is the result of Swedenborg's own meditations upon his spiritual experiences? That he learned innumerable things directly from spirits and angels? That the words he used to express these things were of his own choice? How, then, are the Writings really the Word of God?
Angels, spirits, and devils told him many things, of course. Angels, for example, told him that only from the Lord and through conjunction with Him can anyone reach wisdom.* "Spirits," he writes, "said that I had been protected by the Lord through the whole night."* Again, "Certain spirits . . . ascended from hell, and said, . . . 'Write that every spirit, whether good or evil, is in his own delight; a good spirit in the delight of his good, and an evil spirit in the delight of his evil'."***
* DP 36. ** SD 3871. *** DP 340e.
And yet, in spite of these and countless similar passages, we must and can conclude that none of these things was from the angel or spirit himself, but all from the Lord alone through him. Thus we read,
Again, "No spirit has dared, nor any angel wished, to tell me anything, still less to instruct me about any matter in the Word, . . . but I have been taught by the Lord alone."* Again, "I have not received anything whatever pertaining to the doctrines of the church from any angel., but from the Lord alone while I have read the Word."**
* TCR 779. ** DP 135.
Again, "I have been allowed to say only those things which inflowed from God Messiah alone, mediately through (spirits), and also immediately."* 261 Again, "I observed . . . that evil spirits are kept in speaking those things which are to be observed by me. . . . A perception then also was given as to what was to be observed. . . . From which it is evident that the things . . . I have learned through evil spirits, I have learned from the Lord alone, although the spirits spoke."** Yet again, "It was of the Divine auspices of the Lord that I came to those houses (in heaven), and that they then deliberated concerning those matters."*** And again, "Although spirits have spoken with me almost continually for so long a time, ... while it was being written they were silent."****
* WE 1894. ** SD 5464. *** AR 484e. **** Adv. 3: 7167e.
Spirits and angels, then, told him many things. But he was led by the Lord to reflect upon their discourse, and given a perception by the Lord as to what he should record. And even their conversations with him were Divinely guided, according, I suppose, to the revealed truth that, we read, "Man and spirit can or is compelled to think and speak only that which the Lord permits or allows."* This Divine control over man's thought and speech is, I suppose, exercised according to the laws that all of man's thoughts are simply forms of his affections; that the Lord alone knows all of a man's ruling love, from which his affections and consequent thoughts inflow; and that the Lord guides these affections and thoughts, permitting only those to come to man's consciousness which can serve a use.**
* SD 2099. ** DP 198.
What spirits and angels told Swedenborg, then, really was of and from the Lord through them. It is somewhat along the line of the teaching that when any man really learns a Divine Truth, he has been taught by the Lord alone, even if mediately through the preaching of some minister.
5. Learning From Himself?
But what of Swedenborg's own conclusions? Are not the Writings nothing but his own conclusions? Are they not completely filled with what is Swedenborg's own?
He himself expresses horror at such an idea, as in the following: His writings, he says are "not my work, but the Lord's."* "Do not believe that I have taken anything from myself, nor from any angel, but from the Lord alone."** "I sacredly confess that not a syllable . . . is from me."*** 262 "Only what has come from the Lord has been written."**** "I could not produce one single idea by my own effort."*****
* SD 6101. ** AR Pref. *** Adv. 3: 3764. **** AE 1182: 3. ***** Adv 943.
Nothing in the Writings, then, is from Swedenborg himself; all is from the Lord alone. And yet all that is in the Writings is Swedenborg's own rational conclusions concerning his spiritual experiences. Nor is there any contradiction herein.
As we read earlier, whenever he saw or heard anything in the spiritual world, he was interiorly and inmostly held in reflection upon it. This was the Lord's doing, Swedenborg freely co-operating. And while he was thus reflecting, the Lord gave him a perception of what was true, and what should therefore be written. Often Swedenborg writes such things as "A perception was then . . . given of what was to be observed."* "I have clearly perceived that. . . "** "It was given me to perceive."***
* SD 5464. ** AE 1147: 3. *** SD 4222, et al.
"Perception," the Writings say, "consists of seeing what is true and good by influx from the Lord."* And it was by perception that Swedenborg was able to draw true conclusions from what he saw. And since all truth in its essence is Divine, it was by perception, therefore, that he came to a rational understanding of the Divine truths he published in the Writings.
* AC 202.
But, we read further, "Perception exists only with those who are in the good of love from the Lord to the Lord."* It is given, that is, only to the regenerate. Was Swedenborg, then, regenerate? Very definitely, we believe that he was. He never boasts of the fact; in fact, quite the opposite; but in many places those things he says concerning himself, merely in passing, are predicates of a regenerate man.
* AC 371.
Notable, since the book quite obviously was never intended for publication, his Journal of Dreams is filled with confessions of sin, with abject prayers for forgiveness, and with utter abasement of himself as nothing in the sight of God. His horror that men might think his writing his own, rather than the Lord's work, must have come from true spiritual humility. In the Diary he records that he perceived that he was withheld from evil by spiritual bonds,* and it is by spiritual bonds that every angel of heaven is withheld from evil. Again he writes that he has learned, we quote "from experience that evil does not reign with me."** Again, that he was granted a perception like that of "the celestial angels."*** 263 Again, that the Lord has "granted me to love truths in a spiritual manner that is, for the sake of the truths themselves; for he who loves truths for the sake of truths sees them from the Lord."**** Again, that he was prepared by the Lord to "receive the things that are of spiritual wisdom."***** And finally, that he has been "filled with the spirit of the Lord to teach the doctrines of the New Church from the Word."******
* SD 2739. ** SD 4109. *** DP 158. **** Letter to Oetinger. ***** CL 39. ****** TCR 779.
His own regeneration, then, gave him the ability to perceive from the Lord what was true and should be written. And, of course, being a man actively trying to co-operate with the Lord, and able, as he says, to perceive what inflowed from the Lord and what through the hells,* he wrote down those things only which he perceived to be true, those things only, that is, which were from the mouth of the Lord alone.
* Adv. 3: 2056e.
In no way, however, did the degree of his regeneration limit .the amount of Truth contained in his Writings, any more than a minister's personal regeneration determines the amount of truth he embodies in his sermons. In Swedenborg as an individual, truth was indeed limited by the degree of his regeneration; but not in his writings. He had to be regenerating, in order that he might have any perception of truth at all; but this did not determine the amount of truth interiorly contained within his works.
What Swedenborg learned from his own rational studies and thought, then, was not really from himself at all, but rather from a perception of truth in him from the Lord. This is the fact, no matter what the appearance.
6. His Choice of Words
So also does the fact overrule the appearance in regard to the words he chose in writing down the Heavenly Doctrines. He did not really choose them of his own free will at all, but only as it were of his own free will. Usually he felt himself to be free to write as he wished; but occasionally he was permitted sensibly to experience such things as to prove that his very words were Divinely inspired, and this reality he himself proclaims as such.
Thus he writes, "The very words, although not dictated, have still been sensibly inspired."* Again, "These things which have been written . . . have been inspired in me by an angel who was with me. . . . The words themselves came spontaneously upon the paper, but without dictation."** Again, "it was dictated, but in a wonderful way, in the thought, and the thought was led to the understanding of these words, being as it were held down with a heavenly force. 264 Thus this revelation was effected sensibly."***
* Adv. 3: 3764. ** Adv. 3: 5394. *** AC 6474.
Thus we see that although his writings apparently contain his own conclusions, phrased in words seemingly of his own choice, they nevertheless actually are Divinely given perceptions of truth phrased in Divinely chosen words. His words came to him spontaneously; his ideas were held down with a heavenly force, in the several words; his choice of words was sensibly inspired, and this so completely that, as he says, "I could not in any wise wander into other thoughts, which was even allowed me to attempt, but to no purpose." (AC 6474)
We have already seen how this could have been done. Words correspond to the thoughts they express. Thoughts are the forms of affections; they are affections taking form.* The Lord alone knows all of a man's ruling love and the affections springing from it; and these He so guides that only those may come to a man s consciousness, and take form in his thoughts, as can serve a use. As Swedenborg notes, "From manifold and daily experience now . . . it is given me to know that man and spirit is compelled to think and speak that which the Lord permits or allows."** Thought and speech, that is, are ruled and controlled by the Lord for the sake of use. And in Swedenborg's case, of course, the use thus served was the clothing, in a Divinely chosen word-order, of Divine Truths continuous from the Lord alone.
* DP 198. ** SD 2099.
Thus it is that the Writings meet these two requirements of Divine Revelation. Nothing in them is from any man, spirit, or angel, but all is from the mouth of the Lord alone. And the very words used to express them are not of a man's own choice, but are the choice of the Lord Himself. But because their mortal author, the instrument of their revelation, learned all that is in them by observation and study, pondered over it, and then expressed it in words as it were of his own choosing, the Writings are not only the veritable Word of God, but are Divine Truths in rational form, Divine Truths in their very letter, the Word of the Lord in His Second Coming, and the Crown of Revelations.