The Second Coming of the Lord
by Rev. Willard D. Pendleton
For generations the first Christian Church anticipated the second coming of the Lord. The reason for its faith is directly stated in the Gospels. In speaking to His disciples of His death and resurrection, the Lord assured them, saying, "I will come again." (John 14: 3) From this, and from similar statements found throughout the Gospels, the Christian Church assumed that the Lord would come again in person. Nowhere, however, is this said. What is said is that He would come as the "Comforter" who is "the Spirit of truth." (John 15: 26. See also John 14: 16, 26; 16: 7) Thus, in instructing His disciples concerning His second coming, the Lord said: "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth." (John 16: 13)
The question therefore, is, who is this Spirit of truth of whom the Lord spoke? In the Gospel of John He is twice referred to as "the Comforter" (John 14: 16, 17; 15: 26) who, according to the further testimony of John, is the Holy Spirit. (John 14: 26) We have no difficulty, therefore, in understanding the dilemma of the men of the first Christian Church. Because they failed to perceive that in the Lord, as in man, there is a trinity of person, they interpreted the many references to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in terms of three Divine persons. Thus it was assumed that when the Lord came again into the world He would come in the person of the Comforter or Holy Spirit, that is, as the third person in a Divine trinity of persons. Concerning this, however, the Writings state: "The Second Coming of the Lord is not a coming in person, but in the Word, which is from Him, and is Himself." (TCR 776)
This notable teaching is the key to the understanding of the Writings, for how can we understand the Writings unless we know who it is who is speaking to us? For the Writings are not, as is generally supposed, an enlightened commentary upon the Scriptures; neither are they the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, a man. They are, on their own testimony, that Spirit of truth of whom the Lord spoke to His disciples, saying, "When He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth." (John 16: 13)
By the "Spirit of truth" is meant spiritual truth, which is revealed at this day in the spiritual sense of the Word. The Lord has come, therefore, not as men anticipated, but as He Himself foretold, that is, in and as the spiritual sense of the Word. For, as the Writings state: "The Lord is the Word, because the Word is from Him and He is in the Word. . . . And as the Lord is the Word, He is also doctrine, for there is no other doctrine which is itself Divine." (AC 2533. See also TCR 777; AE 684: 26, 27, 700: 9; AC 3880, 8864)
We hold, therefore, that the Writings are the Divine doctrine, and as such, the Word. For, as stated in the Writings: "From the Divine itself nothing of doctrine can possibly proceed except through . . . the Word, which in the supreme sense is the Divine truth from the Lord's Divine Human." (AC 5321: 2) In this the Writings differ from former revelations, for whereas in the Old Testament the Lord is revealed through an angelic human which was borrowed from the heavens, and whereas in the New Testament He is revealed through the instrumentality of the human derived from the mother, in the Writings He is revealed in His own Divine Human, that is, as the Word made flesh. (AC 3813: 9)
By the Word made flesh is meant the living Word, for "it is the spirit which quickeneth" (John 6: 63); that is to say, it is the spiritual sense which gives life and meaning to the letter and enables the mind to perceive wherein the Divinity and the holiness of the Word reside.(SS 40) It is, then, as the living Word, or the Word of the Lord in His own Divine Human, that He has come among us, and we have "beheld His glory" (John 1: 14); for by His glory is meant the Divine truth proceeding from His Divine Human, which is the spiritual sense of the Word. (AC 5922: 4) Hence it is said in the Scriptures that the Lord would come "with power and great glory" (Matthew 24: 30); that is, in the full power of His Word. (TCR 776) Yet at this day who is prepared to believe that the Writings are what they claim to be? Who, men ask, was Emanuel Swedenborg, that he should speak for God? But the Writings solemnly affirm that "this second coming of the Lord is effected by means of a man to whom the Lord has manifested Himself in person, and whom He has filled with His Spirit, that He may teach the doctrines of the New Church from the Lord by means of the Word." (TCR 779)
We have no difficulty, therefore, in understanding why it is that the Writings are received by few at this day. While it is true that over the years there have been many who have expressed interest in the Theological Works of Emanuel Swedenborg, few have subscribed to the testimony of the Writings concerning themselves. This, however, is the issue: either the Writings are what they claim to be, or they are not. If not, how are we to account for them; for as the officers who were sent by the Pharisees to take the Lord into custody said, "Never man spake like this Man." (John 7: 46)
In resting their claim to Divine authority upon the internal evidence that they are the spiritual sense of the Word, the Writings are unique. In submitting to the sight of the understanding the evidence that they are the spiritual sense of the Word, the Writings stand apart. We do not believe in the Writings, therefore, because Swedenborg laid claim to a Divine commission, but because we perceive that "never man spake like this Man." (Ibid.) Of himself no man could possibly have conceived of those doctrines which comprise the Divine text. For these doctrines, although drawn out of the letter of the Word and confirmed thereby, (SS 50) involve new concepts of God, of good, of truth, and of the meaning and purpose of life. In this also the Writings differ from former revelations, but at the same time infill and fulfill the Scriptures, and open the sight of the understanding to the acknowledgment and perception of the unity of the Word.
What we have here, therefore, is not three Words, but one Word. Like the Godhead, the Word of the Lord cannot be divided. God is one, and His Word is one. We cannot have three Words any more than we can have three Lords. Yet in all unity there is a trinity, and apart from the trinity of a thing its unity cannot be seen. Take, for example, the man whom God created in His own image and likeness. Man is not man because he possesses a body. He is man because he is also endowed with a mind and a soul. Here is a trinity which constitutes one person; that is, a being in whom, as in God, there is a trinity of person. Were this not so man would not be man.
What applies here to God, and to the man whom He created in His own image, also applies to the Word. The Word of the Lord comes to us in the form of three Divine revelations, and each is essential to the understanding of the others. That this is so is evident from the teaching of the Writings that apart from doctrine, that is, apart from the spiritual sense, the Word in its letter cannot be understood. (SS 51) But the reverse is also true, for apart from the letter, that is, apart from the Old and New Testaments, the Writings cannot be understood. The reason for this is that the former Testaments provide those basic concepts upon which the higher and more interior concepts of the Writings depend. That is why a knowledge of those revelations which preceded the Writings is basic to the understanding of the Divine doctrine; even as the Divine doctrine is essential to the understanding of the Old and New Testaments.
On this occasion, therefore, when we celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Divine doctrine, we pause to reflect upon both the past and the future of the New Church. In reflecting upon the past we are mindful of the almost imperceptible growth of the church, of its trials and vicissitudes, of its controversies and its conflicts, of its tender beginnings and its apparent failures, of its hopes and disappointments, and of its struggle to survive in an alien world. Yet through it all there has been progress, as is evident in the slow but gradually increasing awareness within the church that the Writings are what they claim to be. This evidence is found in the history of doctrine, which bears witness to the progressive acceptance of the Writings as the Word….
Yet who, at this day, is prepared to believe the testimony of the Writings concerning themselves? This is a faithless generation which will not credit the possibility of an authoritative statement of truth. Truth, men say, is a purely relative concept which has no validity apart from the situation in which one finds oneself. What was held to be true in the past is said to be no longer applicable, and it is assumed that what is regarded as true at this day will in time be dismissed as no longer relevant. In substituting the pragmatic method for principles, and in discarding the laws of morality in favor of situation ethics, men have created a social and intellectual environment which is not conducive to the acceptance of the Divine doctrine. As the Lord said to the scribe who sought to follow Him in His ministry: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head." (Matthew 8: 20)
These words are descriptive of the state of the world at this day. In essence it is a state of indifference to any claim to Divine authority. This applies not only to the Writings, but also to the Scriptures which, although accepted by many as a social gospel, are no longer regarded as an authoritative statement of truth. We have no difficulty in understanding this, for apart from the spiritual sense the Divinity of the Scriptures cannot be seen. But in their distrust of any claim to the truth, men dismiss as incredible the primary claim that the Writings make concerning themselves. This, however, will not always be so, for we are assured in the Writings that although at first the church will be with a few, provision is being made for its growth among many. (AE 732)
The growth of the church is dependent upon two things: first, upon the integrity of its doctrine; second, upon a state made ready for its reception. We are not speaking here of the church as an organization, but of the church as it exists in the hearts and minds of men. When we speak of the integrity of doctrine, therefore, we have reference to the acknowledgment that the Lord is the Word, and that it is He who has come again as the Divine doctrine. For it is by means of the Divine doctrine, and in no other way, that the Lord's Divine Human is made visible to the sight of the understanding. Hence it is said in the Writings that "this New Church is the crown of all the churches that have hitherto existed on the earth, because it is to worship one visible God." (TCR 787) Let us have no illusions, therefore, in regard to the New Church. It is a doctrinal church, and it cannot be otherwise. Because the Lord has come as the Divine doctrine, it is essential to the establishment and growth of the New Church that these doctrines be understood.
Since the days of the early Academy, therefore, the study of doctrine has been afforded a high priority among us, and it is this which accounts for the frequently heard criticism that the General Church is a purely intellectual church. In support of this criticism it is pointed out by well-meaning New Church men that it is a primary teaching of the Writings that "all religion is of life, and the life of religion is to do that which is good." (Life 1) But how can man do what is good until he first knows what good is? To do good man must first be instructed in truth. For it is as truth that good is presented to the sight of the understanding, and apart from truth, good cannot be seen. That is why we believe in New Church education; that is, in an educational system which opens the mind to the perception of Him who alone is good. That is why we place so much emphasis upon the need for doctrinal studies, and upon the need for doctrinal instruction. It is not because the understanding of doctrine has any meaning in itself, but because it is by means of doctrine, and only by means of doctrine, that man can perceive what good is.
We are living at a time, however, when few are interested in doctrine. This is clearly reflected in the fact that the critical question of the age is not what is true, but what is relevant. The assumption here is that a thing is not true unless it has some direct application to life; that is, unless it provides some workable solution to the pressing problems of the day. Hence it is that many have rejected the idea of God, the reality of the spiritual world, and the validity of the Word. But what men fail to perceive is that without the idea of a God who is good, and whose Word is the truth, they have no standard of authority, no point of reference, no basis of judgment whereby they may distinguish between right and wrong, and good and evil. That is why the Lord has come again into the world, not as to His person, but in, and as, the Human which He made Divine, that is, as the Divine doctrine. When seen for what they are, and when rightly understood, it cannot be said that the Writings lack relevance. For what is truth but a form of good; that is, the form in which good appears to the sight of the understanding.
What, then, is the responsibility of the New Church at this day? It is two-fold: first, to preserve the integrity of the Divine doctrine within the church; second, to seek out those, few though they may be, who are capable of perceiving that the Word in its letter contains a spiritual sense, and that it is by means of this sense, and in no other way, that the Lord is present in the Word. (TCR 780) Let us not be discouraged, therefore, by the signs of the times, for what is taking place at this day, although not conducive to the immediate growth of the church, is a necessary process which must precede the eventual acceptance of the Divine doctrine by many. What we are witnessing today is nothing more nor less than the effects of the Last judgment, which took place more than two hundred years ago. At that time the former Christian Church was weighed in the balance and found wanting. For, as the Writings state, "the former church was Christian in name only, not in fact and in essence." (TCR 668)
To many within the New Church this has seemed like a harsh judgment. From the beginning there have been those who have been unwilling to accept its full implications. Even today there are those who would have us believe that the former Christian Church, having been permeated by the spirit of the new dispensation, is in process of revival. This, however, is wishful thinking. Not only is there no hope of a spiritual revival within the Christian Church, but when viewed from the standpoint of the decline of the Christian Church over the past two hundred years, and particularly within the past several decades, the only question which remains is how long the Christian Church can survive as an institution in a secular society? As one student of the subject has said: "The central fact of modern history in the West . . . is unquestionably the decline of religion." (William Barrett: The Irrational Man, p. 24, 1958.)
What the writer is speaking of here is not the decline in membership, but the loss in influence of an institution which was once the uncontested center of man's life, but today is not much more than a peripheral activity. But man does not live by bread alone. Sooner or later he must return to the Word, which is the only source of genuine values. That is why the Lord has come again in, and as, the spiritual sense of the Word; and although as yet He is received by few, we are assured that provision is being made for His reception by many. (AE 732)
What these provisions are we cannot say in that they are deeply hidden in the workings of the Divine Providence. One thing, however, is certain: a small beginning has been made, and feeble as it may be, it is nevertheless founded upon the firm acknowledgment that the Writings are what they purport to be, namely, the Word of the Lord in His second coming. For, as clearly stated in the work, The True Christian Religion: "The Second Coming of the Lord is not a coming in person, but in the Word which is from Him, and is Himself." (TCR 776) Nothing could be more explicit than this. As promised in the Scriptures, therefore, the Son of Man has come "with power and great glory," (Matthew 24: 30) that is, in the glory of the spiritual sense and in the full power of His Word. (TCR 776: 1)
As already stated, therefore, let us not be discouraged by the signs of the times, but "let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works" (Matthew 5: 16); that is, those uses of worship and instruction which are basic to the establishment of the New Church upon earth. It is through the support of these uses, for the sake of which the church is organized, that many will in time be led to the perception and acknowledgment of the Lord in His Divine Human. Having put our hand to the plough let us not look backward, but forward to the distant yet achievable objective of the establishment of the New Church among men. This is the exalted use to which we are individually and collectively committed, and it is well if on this occasion, when we celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the New Church, we give thanks for the many blessings which the Lord in His Divine Providence has conferred upon those who believe in His Word.
-New Church Life 1970;90:474-481