Heresies may be taken from the Sense of the Letter of the Word, but it is hurtful to confirm them (S.S. 91-7)
Here as in a previous heading we have a general statement applicable to all churches; for in every church, heresies are taken from the sense of the letter of the revelation to that church. In the Ancient Church they arose because men falsified the Ancient Word by teaching that the names of God designated separate gods—whence arose idolatry. The Jewish Church was destroyed, or rather was prevented from being a genuine church, by its interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures as promising an earthly kingdom to themselves, and by its traditions whereby the commandments of God were made of none effect. So heresies arose in the Christian Church from wrong interpretations of the New Testament. The application of the same law to the New Church and the Writings is obvious. Indeed, without this application the present heading would be void of meaning for the New Church; it would be merely a statement of what may take place in the Jewish or Christian Churches.
No heresy can possibly arise in a church, save from the falsification of the sense of the letter of the Word given to that church. It would be impossible to imagine a heresy in the Christian Church as having its source in a falsification of any other revelation than the New Testament. Nor can any one conceive of a heresy in the New Church arising from any other source than a falsification of the Writings. The history of the Church is eloquent testimony to this.
With regard to the origin of heresies in general, I would again note that all Divine Revelation is in ultimates; and it is a limitation inherent in ultimates that they can express truth only by presenting it separately in its various facets or phases. This involves that the truth is presented in different appearances even to the point of contradiction. Fastening their attention on the one appearance or the other, that is to say, on one apparent truth, or another, men may therefore come to different opinions as to what the Word teaches. This is the origin of diverse doctrines in the church, and also of heresies.
As already stated, this law as to the origin of heresies applies also to the New Church. But what I wish now to call particular attention to, is that this application is clearly involved, as it seems to me, in that vision of the New Church which was seen by Swedenborg in the spiritual world. I refer to the description in the True Christian Religion of that magnificent temple on whose portal were written the words Nunc Licet. We read: " In the midst of the temple was a shrine, in front of which was a veil, but now uplifted, where stood a cherub of gold with a sword in his hand waving this way and that. . . . The temple signified the New Church; . . . the shrine in the midst of the temple, the conjunction of that Church with the angelic heaven; the cherub of gold therein, the Word in the sense of the letter. The sword waving in its hand signified that this sense can be turned this way and that, provided this be done in application to some truth. That the veil before the cherub was uplifted signified that now the Word is laid open " (T. C. R. 508).
It is commonly supposed that by " the sense of the letter " here, is meant the Old and New Testament. If such be truly the case, then this part of the representation seen by Swedenborg can mean nothing more than that the letter of the Old and New Testament can be interpreted in various ways provided this be done to confirm some truth taught in the Writings—for naturally no one in the New Church would use the Word for any other purpose. This of course is true, but it can hardly be said to be a guard against undue entry into the interiors of the Word—and that a cherub signifies such a guard is evident.
In the supreme sense, a cherub represents the Lord's providence preventing man from entering into the interiors of the Word from himself and his own proprium (A. C. 308, 2761). " By cherubs (we read) is signified a guard, that the Lord, heaven, and the Divine Truth as it is interiorly in the Word, be approached, not immediately but mediately by means of ultimates " (S. S. 97).
This guard is provided by the fact that all revelation is made in ultimates. Here man stands at the threshold of heaven. While he can see and understand the truth of the statements in the ultimate words of revelation, he cannot see the spiritual truths within, that is, cannot be affected by them, unless he approaches the Lord in that revelation with the desire to learn from Him the way to heaven. This, as I have already observed, makes sure to man his freedom of choice; it is also a guard lest he enter into the truths of wisdom save so far as he can be held in them to the end of life (D. P. 232).
" The sense of the letter of the Word (we read) is a guard for the genuine truths that lie within, lest they be injured; and the guard consists in the fact that this sense can be turned this way and that, and can be explained according to one's apprehension, and yet its internal not be injured or violated. For it is not harmful that the sense of the letter is understood by one person differently than by another; but it is harmful if man brings in falses that are contrary to Divine Truths,—which is done solely by those who have confirmed themselves in falses. By these, violence is done to the Word. The sense of the letter guards against this, and it so guards with those who are in falses from religion but do not confirm its falses " (T. C. R. 260, 97).
This guard was shown to Swedenborg in the spiritual world by a representation wherein he saw great open purses filled with silver, but guarded by angels. The purses of silver signified cognitions of truth, and " their being opened and yet guarded by angels, signified that every one could take therefrom cognitions of truth, but that care is taken lest any one shall violate the spiritual sense within, wherein are unmixed truths " (S. S. 26).
This guarding of spiritual truths by the sense of the letter which both clothes and presents them, is characteristic of all revelation—and this of the Divine Providence for the preservation of man's freedom, and the prevention of profanation. And so I can entertain no doubt but that by the cherub with the waving sword in his hand whom Swedenborg saw standing in front of the uplifted curtain which revealed the shrine, that is to say, revealed the conjunction of the New Church with the angelic heaven, was signified the sense of the letter of the Writings. It is this sense that is the threshold before the uplifted veil revealing the Lord; the threshold from which man can behold the Lord and be conjoined with the angelic heaven; the threshold where for a time some are detained because of obscurity arising from appearances, which yet in some way confirm with them the acknowledgment of God and the life of charity; the threshold in which others are held imprisoned lest they seize on heaven as the servant of their evil loves, and be destroyed in the seizing.
Being written in the language of natural ideas, the Writings present spiritual and celestial truth in natural appearances. True, these appearances are not of the simple character found in the Old and New Testaments, but that they are appearances is sufficiently testified to by the fact that in respect to various subjects New Churchmen differ in their views as to what is the genuine teaching of the Writings. Thus, on the basis of what they read in those Writings, some hold that the body which the Lord had in the world, was dissipated, while others, on the same basis, hold that it was changed to a divine substantial body; some hold that the Writings are the Word, while others hold that they are not the Word but the internal sense of the Word; some hold that open communication with angels will again be restored as it was in the Most Ancient Church, while others hold that such communication will never be restored; and so forth. As the men of the church progress in enlightenment, they will come to see the true relation of these differing views, and that both are necessary to a fuller understanding of the truth.
Meanwhile to hold to the one of these views or the other is not harmful provided the man does not thereby confirm himself in the loves of self and the world. Based on appearances in the Writings, heresies may spring up which in themselves are destructive of spiritual truth; yet even the belief in these does not condemn a man provided he believes them in simplicity because he thinks the Lord so teaches in the Writings, and provided also he lives the life of religion. They are destructive of spiritual life only with those who confirm them from evil loves and who thereby blind their eyes to the teaching of the Lord; but as to who these are, this is known to the Lord alone. It is to guard against such heresies that we are admonished to go to the Lord in his Word and there to receive enlightenment. There is no other guard.