from "The Structure of New Church Teaching"
by Alan Grange
The facts call for a non-literalistic interpretation [of the Scriptures]. But that interpretation must properly explain the whole. It must explain what is obviously non-historical but not at the expense of "allegorizing away" the firmly historical element. Nor may it ignore what is shiningly comprehensible in the letter. Can you have an interpretation which values properly the inner and outer contents of the Word and which is founded upon rational principles?
What the Spiritual Sense is
Swedenborg writes that there is in the Word a spiritual sense which has hitherto remained unknown (True Christian Religion 193). He further asserts that the Lord revealed the spiritual sense of the Word to him, and that the Second Coming of the Lord is not in person but in the Word, now revealed in its spiritual sense. The Second Coming is effected by means of a man to whom the spiritual sense of the Word can be revealed, who can receive the doctrines of the New Church "with his understanding" and publish them (True Christian Religion 776-780). This teaching is clearly parallel to the assertion that it is now permitted for men to enter rationally into the mysteries of faith (508). What is this spiritual sense?
The Word is from the Lord and is the Lord. "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14 v. 6). "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men" (John 1 v. 1, 4). By Word is understood the Lord as to Divine Truth (True Christian Religion 190).
So much might be agreed by many Christians. Nevertheless, the average man, as he regards the Bible and its contents, finds difficulty in believing that it is Divine Truth itself. Its spirituality is within it, rather than visible upon the surface. The style and contents are not what is expected. They are frequently archaic, barbaric, repulsive, tedious, contradictory, mysterious and without any apparent spiritual lesson for us. Much of the contents are left alone by the majority of readers.
Where is the spiritual element? Where in the Word does it lie concealed? What makes it the Word of God? Swedenborg declares that the spiritual must be within the natural. "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6 v. 63). The Word is spiritual in its inmost content because it descended from the Lord and passed through the angelic heavens. The Divine Itself, which is in itself ineffable and incomprehensible, was adapted in its descent to the perception of angels and lastly to that of men. Hence the Word must have a spiritual sense within the natural sense (True Christian Religion 193).
Obviously the spiritual sense is not at all "the spiritual meaning" which an individual preacher may find in some chosen text. It is not apparent in the sense of the letter. Rather is it interiorly within it as the spirit is in the body, as the light of the understanding is in the eye or the affection of love in the countenance. Clearly the operative relationship is correspondence. Since the interior sense of the Word is spiritual it is written by pure correspondences (194). This correspondence is not merely a symbolism used for the sake of Biblical interpretation. It is a Creative fact, an attribute of the structure and functioning of the universe. It is the correspondence which must exist between the mind of God and the universe which He has created. Moreover, since man is created in the image of God, the natural world will also represent correspondentially the states and processes of the human mind.
The knowledge of correspondences, by which is communicated the spiritual sense of the Word, is today revealed (True Christian Religion 207). The whole natural world corresponds to the spiritual world not only collectively but in every part, and without a knowledge of correspondence it is impossible for anything to be clearly known concerning the spiritual world and its influx into the natural world (Heaven and Hell 87-115).
This is to confirm the existence of that inner world which has been perceived intuitively by poets and artists, the reality behind the appearance or manifestation of things, although it differs radically from their guesses. It embodies an order which must be revealed by God. Correspondences, whether of living things or inanimate objects, express function or "use". In the case of evil they express the opposite of use. Because of the multiplicity of objects and "the variety of uses" correspondence must necessarily be revealed to us ; but man can see the rationality of correspondences when they have been revealed. In the case of Scriptural proper names the signification is sometimes present in the root-word and Swedenborg often refers to etymology.
The spiritual sense of the Word contains both the interior sense, or spiritual sense proper, which relates primarily to the things of faith, and the inmost or "celestial" sense, which concerns the things of love (True Christian Religion 212, 289). This psychological distinction runs throughout Swedenborg's theology. In this book the term "spiritual sense" is used in its wider connotation except where' stated.
The Inspiration of the Word
The teaching that the Word is written by correspondence raises a matter of great importance. In what way are the Scriptures inspired? People speak of the Bible as "Holy Writ" or "Divine Word" and "Divinely inspired". It is doubtful, however, that Christianity today teaches anything more than a "general" inspiration of Scripture. Revelation is said to be "progressive" and what was once important may now be left behind. Many parts of the Pentateuch, especially the legal and sacrificial sections, are little read today. The same applies to much of the historical books, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. The Ten Commandments are often spoken of as belonging to a religious dispensation which has passed away. These things are outmoded. The inspiration of the Word can only be regarded as general. Man is free to choose or reject as he decides within this collection of ancient literature. Moreover, he is perfectly free to change the wording if the text appears to him to be difficult or obscure, and Hebraists frequently do so, in the books of the Old Testament.
Swedenborg asserts a directly opposite view, though he was well aware of this trend of thinking, which had arisen long before his time. The holiness of the Word is not apparent in the sense of the letter. Lest the Word should be rejected, and the Lord's conjunction with man through it should be cut off, the spiritual sense has been revealed, so that it may, be known in what the Divine holiness of the Word lies (True Christian Religion 200).
Because of the spiritual sense the Word is inspired in every word. (In some cases the inspiration is in the letters.) Swedenborg's list of those books of the Bible which are inspired, and consequently have this internal sense within them, will be given in the next chapter. The present point is that this doctrine of verbal inspiration, which cuts across the prevailing teaching of general inspiration, provides the earnest Christian with exactly what he needs, an assurance that all contents of the Word are Divine, and that he can go to them confidently to find God's word to him. without danger of lighting upon some portion which "progress" has left behind. Because they are Divinely inspired they contain the spiritual sense, and are significant, however unpromising the letter.
This teaching saves many portions of the Old Testament, and some of the New Testament, which otherwise would be left unread. It rehabilitates many important teachings such as for example the Commandment concerning the sabbath day (Exodus 20 v.8-11). The spiritual sense of the sabbath opens the way to an intelligent defence of that day. "The Sabbath represents the Lord, the six days representing His labours and combats with the hells and the seventh day His victory over them and thus rest ; and because the sabbath day was representative of the fitting end of the whole of the Lord's work of redemption, therefore it was holiness itself". The day should now be a day of instruction in Divine things, of rest from labours, of meditation on such matters as pertain to salvation and eternal life, and of exercise of love towards the neighbour (TCR 301).
Examples of the Spiritual Sense
We choose firstly some of the basic correspondences, those of the human body. When the head is mentioned in the Word, then by the principle of correspondence, there is signified intelligence and wisdom. By the eyes is signified understanding ; by the nostrils, perception ; by the breast, charity ; by arms and hands, the power of truth ; by the feet, ultimate good - good in the lowest or last things. It was because of correspondence that in Jewish sacrifices the worshipper was enjoined to place his hand upon the head of his offering from the herd (Leviticus 1, etc.). By this principle the miracles of opening eyes and ears are to be understood. For this reason the Lord washed the feet of His disciples (John 13). These correspondences of the body are built into the language. We say that an intelligent man has a head on him, that a perceptive man is quick-scented, that an intelligent man is sharp-sighted. We speak of bosom friends, feeling hearts, feet on the ground, foul mouths, although nothing physical is meant. Rather these are expressions used to describe a spiritual quality. They are present in language because in ancient times correspondences were known.
Similarly, sun and moon and stars, cloud and rain and lightning, must be understood by correspondence. When the Scripture says that the sun is darkened and the moon ceases to give light, there is a deprivation of good and truth (Joel 2 v. 10 ; 3 v. 15). The stars correspond to our knowledges of spiritual things. Famine and drought are spiritual defects. The animals correspond to affections, useful animals to good affections, wild animals to evil affections, with difference according to species. Hence the use of oxen, bullocks, rams, sheep, goats, doves, in the ceremonial worship of the Old Testament. These offerings signify the spiritual offerings of a repentant life.
Exactly the same principle applies to the trees mentioned so frequently in Scripture, to the mountains and rivers, lands and peoples. By garden, grove and wood are meant wisdom, intelligence and knowledge respectively. By olive, vine, cedar and oak, good and truth upon different planes of life. Egypt signifies the scientific principle - knowledge ; Assyria, the rational principle ; Philistia, that inveterate enemy of Israel, faith separate from charity ; Babylon, the perversion of goods and truths for the sake of dominion. These significations of nations in Scripture do not take away in the slightest from the historical reality of the narratives concerning them. There is a spiritual sense in the politics of Isaiah 1-39 and Jeremiah, in the slaying of the Philistine giant Goliath by David, in the subjugation of Israel by Assyria, and Judah by Babylon, in the promise that Jerusalem and Zion shall be restored with all the nations paying homage to Judah.
There is a spiritual sense in the history of the twelve tribes of Israel. Why should they be so meticulously listed in the Word of God? Why should their families, lands, vicissitudes be related in such detail? What do these names mean in the Apocalypse, written upon the gates of the Holy City (Revelation 7 v. 5 ; 21 v. 12)? The twelve tribes signify different goods of life and truths of doctrine (Apocalypse Revealed 349). The primacy of the tribe of Judah rests upon the spiritual significance of that tribe, which is love to the Lord. This enters into every good and truth represented by the rest. Such is the inner sense of Jacob's words, when he prophesies the destiny of his sons. "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah" (Genesis 49 v. 10). Unless they contain an inner meaning, what value can details of tribal history and relationships have for the Christian today?
Function and Process
Natural function and process correspond to spiritual function and process. In the Holy Supper we take bread and wine, as the Lord invites us. They represent the two fundamentals which satisfy spiritual hunger and thirst - good and truth - and nourish spiritual development. These are the fundamentals of the spiritual universe. To eat and drink the bread and wine is representatively to "appropriate" them or take them into the very stuff and fibre of our lives. The Lord's flesh and blood are Good and Truth respectively and He is wholly present with all the benefits of His redemption (True Christian Religion 716, 717).
The Creation Story, by the same principle of correspondence, is the six stages of a man's spiritual creation, from the formless darkness of self and world, through the giving of light and life, to the sixth day, when man is the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1 v. 26). This process of regeneration is set out in detail in Swedenborg's Arcana Caelestia, a verse-by-verse exposition of the spiritual meaning of Genesis and Exodus.
The wanderings of the children of Israel signify our wanderings in the wilderness of unregenerate selfishness and disobedience. The hells look like parched and arid deserts to the angels but not, mercifully, to the infernal spirits who live in them, and who, during their lives upon earth, chose the type of existence to which the hells correspond.
The Flood which destroyed all mankind except Noah and his family signifies the inundation of falsity from evil which came at the end of the Most Ancient Church (see chapter 6). Israel's warfare with a succession of enemies stands for our spiritual warfare with evils and falsities which assail us. Israel did wage war with these peoples. History in the Word is also revelation, under the Providence of God. Swedenborg writes that history begins in Genesis 12 with the call of Abraham (Abram as he then was). The Creation Story and Flood Story are not historical.
Think of the weird actions which the prophets were told to carry out! Jeremiah was to buy a girdle and hide it in a rock beside Euphrates, Ezekiel to shave his head and beard, weigh the cuttings, divide them into third parts, and burn, smite and scatter them respectively (Jeremiah 13; Ezekiel 5). Isaiah was ordered to go naked and barefoot for three years (chapter 20). The meaning of these things is known only from the correspondence of girdle, rock, nakedness, hair, and everything involved. The same principle applies to all things belonging to the Tabernacle, the furniture of which had to be made so carefully according to meticulous instructions, the ark itself, the lampstand, the altars, the veil, the curtains. Why were these instructions given? Why recorded for us in the Word of God? Literalistic interpretation is powerless to answer the question of the sincere Christian, "What spiritual use are these things to me?"
Literalistic commentators are baffled by the enmity and conflict which runs through so many of the Psalms. Again and again the Psalmist speaks of his enemies. Biblical critics cannot determine who these enemies were or what the conflict or conflicts were about, although they advance hypothesis after hypothesis. Simple Christian readers decided long ago that the "enemies" were the enemies of righteousness, and read these Psalms in terms of their own spiritual struggles. It is interesting that Swedenborg states that these Psalms refer, in the spiritual sense, to the conflicts in the mind of Jesus during His successive temptation-combats and, by analogy, to the temptation-combats sustained by man during his regeneration.
From the New Testament
The visions in the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation, constitute perhaps the outstanding problem of Biblical interpretation. What do these things mean? The sea of glass, the bottomless pit, the locusts, the woman clothed with the sun, the beast with seven heads and ten horns, the lake of fire and brimstone? The spiritual sense of the whole book is set out verse by verse in Apocalypse Revealed, published in 1766. This is one of the most remarkable applications of the principle of correspondence.
Perhaps the best-known vision in the Apocalypse is that of the Four Horsemen (6 v. 1-8). Useful animals of the herd and flock, as already remarked, signify the offerings of a good life. They refer primarily to the things of will and affection. Animals of transport are also mentioned frequently in Scripture. They are horses, asses, mules, camels. These animals signify things of the understanding which relate primarily to faith. Of these animals the horse is much the most sensitive, intelligent and responsive. The Four Horses of the Apocalypse, each with characteristic colour and rider, signify different qualities of men's understanding of the Word. For this reason, in the same book of the Word, He Who is called Faithful and True goes forth to war upon a white horse (19 v. 11).
All that the Gospels tell us of the Lord's sayings and deeds is to be interpreted upon the same principle. If there are bodily diseases, then there must be spiritual infirmities which correspond to them. Jesus healed the blind, the deaf, the lame, impotent. So will He heal our spiritual illnesses. And as He fed the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes so does He Providentially feed all His children, wherever they may be, however unpromising their circumstances, which those things of good and truth which may serve as spiritual beginnings (page 162).
Jesus spoke repeatedly in parables, a fact which indicates in itself the existence of spiritual meaning. The Ten Virgins await the Bridegroom (Matthew 25 v. 1-13). The only difference between the wise and the foolish lies in the relationship between illumination and fuel. Some have reserves of oil. Spiritual light depends upon the flame of good, upon the warmth of life and effort in the will, which enkindles and vivifies truths in the understanding. The spiritual meaning of this parable is set out in detail in Arcana Caelestia 4635-4638.
The Rich Man sits in purple and fine linen, while Lazarus craves the crumbs which fall from his table (Luke 16 v. 19-31). Let the reader ask himself. What can spiritual riches be, but the knowledges of good and truth from the Word? The Jewish nation was rich in the Scriptures but crucified Him Who was Himself the Word, Whose words found acceptance among the ignorant Gentiles (Arcana Caelestia 9231 etc.). As well as introducing the meaning of riches in the Word, mention of this parable brings up another important matter. Garments in the Word signify truths or falsities, which clothe, encompass or protect the will. They are mentioned in innumerable instances, garments of priests, prophetic mantles, wedding-garments, cloaks, vestures, the white robes of the Apocalypse. Sometimes they are "rent" or "filthy". Sometimes they are white or red. Their significance is always one of truth or falsity. Another interesting example of correspondence is Jesus' words to Peter in Matthew 16, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (v. 18). The meaning of this saying is very different from that which the Roman Catholic Church has placed upon it. The Word speaks often of rocks. There was the rock which Moses smote in Horeb (Exodus 17). The Psalmist says that God is the rock (78 v. 35 , 18 v. 31). Isaiah tells us to seek the Lord, to look to the rock from which we were hewn (51 v. 1). In 2 Samuel God is "The Rock of Israel" (23 v.3). In Matthew's Gospel, the wise man builds his house upon a rock (7 v. 24, 25). In these passages, by rock is meant the Divine truth from the Lord, the Lord Himself, and the Divine truth from the Lord received in the church. Peter's name means a rock. He represents faith. That is the rock upon which the church is built, not any man. There is a comprehensive discussion of the Scriptural term "Rock" in Apocalypse Explained, paragraph 411, and of Peter's representative meaning in paragraphs 9, 740 and 820 of the same book, which was left unfinished by Swedenborg and was published posthumously.
Appearances of the Letter
The above saying shows that the letter of the Word can be - and often is - misleading and difficult. The supreme example is the anger of God (Exodus 4 v. 14 etc.). Reason tells man that anger cannot be attributed to God. Indeed such a notion is contradicted by many statements in Scripture. The Lord is the Good Shepherd Who lays down His life for the sheep (John 10 v. 11), Who loves us with a great love (15 v. 12, 13). Until the time of the Second Coming there was no principle of interpretation which could rationally harmonize the apparently contradictory statements of the letter. Let us now discuss the changed position.
- Alan Grange, The Structure of New Church Teaching