In part two, Coleman addresses what the Writings tell us about themselves. For reasons laid forth below, he takes them at their word. Find the first part here. -Editor.
2.) What do the Writings say about themselves?
Up to this point I’ve been focusing on what the Writings say about reading the Old and New Testaments, since that’s where they have the most to say about how to read revelation from God. But in coming to my current understanding, I also paid a lot of attention to what the Writings say about themselves – the ways they’re similar to the Old and New Testaments, but also the way they’re different.
First of all, as I mentioned, I reached a point in my life where I was convinced that the Writings were true, and I’d take Swedenborg’s word for it when he described what they were. And over and over again, I saw them claiming that they were directly from God. The most well-known passage on this is probably True Christian Religion 779:
“From the first day of that call I have not received anything whatever pertaining to the doctrines of that church from any angel, but from the Lord alone while I have read the Word.”
Now, some have said that this is referring to the doctrinal teachings, rather than what is said about marriage or heaven and hell, for example. But in other places, Swedenborg wrote that even in his conversations with angels and spirits, and even evil spirits, he was given a perception of what was from the Lord:
"The things which I have learned from symbolic displays, visions, and conversations with spirits and angels, are only from the Lord. Whenever there was a symbolic display, vision and conversation, I was kept reflecting upon them inwardly and more inwardly to see what useful and good purpose [they could serve], thus what I was learning from them. Those who were presenting the displays and visions, and those who were speaking, were not paying much attention to my reflection, and in fact, they were sometimes indignant when they realized that I was reflecting. So consequently, I was taught by no spirit, neither by any angel, but by the Lord Alone, from Whom is all truth and goodness.” (Spiritual Experiences 1647; see also SE 4034 on what Swedenborg heard from evil spirits).
And the beginning of Heaven and Hell says that this revelation of the other world, too, is meant by the “glory in the clouds,” the Lord’s second coming in the internal sense of the Word:
“It has been granted me to associate with angels and to talk with them as man with man, also to see what is in the heavens and what is in the hells, and this for thirteen years; so now from what I have seen and heard it has been granted me to describe these, in the hope that ignorance may thus be enlightened and unbelief dissipated. Such immediate revelation is granted at this day because this is what is meant by the Coming of the Lord.” (Heaven and Hell1)
And that glory in the clouds seems to be a different kind of revelation than the letter of the Old and New Testament, which are described as being the clouds themselves: “’The glory which is in the cloud’ denotes Divine truth which is not so accommodated to the perception, because it is above the fallacies and appearances of the senses” (Arcana Coelestia 8443). In this same passage, the literal sense of the Word is described as being the “sixth degree” of Divine truth, whereas the “glory in the clouds” is described as a level above this: “But truth Divine in the fifth degree is such as is in the ultimate or first heaven; this can be perceived in some small measure by man provided he is enlightened; but still it is such that a great part of it cannot be expressed by human words.”
My understanding is that the Writings are on the level of the fifth degree; if a great part of it cannot be expressed by human words, that implies some part of it can be. In other places, the Writings are called “the natural sense from the spiritual,” rather than the natural sense itself. Apocalypse Explained 1061 describes the difference: when an angel in the book of Revelation explains the meanings of John’s vision of a beast with seven heads, he says the seven heads represent seven mountains. That explanation is still in “a sense merely natural.” But when Apocalypse Explained says that the seven mountains “signify the goods of the Word” – that is “the natural sense from the spiritual sense, which is called the internal sense, also the spiritual-natural sense.” It is a level above the literal sense of the Word. The Writings express things in rational, spiritual terms, rather than merely natural terms – they are free from fallacies in a way that the Old and New Testament are not.
This does not mean that I hold the Writings to be superior in any sense to the Old and New Testaments, or that I put them above the Old and New Testaments. All of them contain the same truth; but what changes is how I think I will see that truth. I expect the truth in the Writings to be spoken more plainly, as Jesus Himself predicted: "These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; but the time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but I will tell you plainly about the Father" (John 16:25).
Now, this doesn’t take away the need to see where the Writings are speaking according to appearances – for example, the passage I quoted earlier about one group being more beloved of the Lord than another. But that is not really a fallacy in the same way as a passage saying the Lord is angry, for example; it simply rests on having the correct understanding of what it means to be “more beloved” of the Lord.
What about all the errors in the Writings, though? Rev. Stephen Cole has pointed out that many of these supposed errors may not be errors at all; still, though, there are some things that certainly seem fallacious. I’m content to say, “I’m not sure if there are errors in the letter of the Writings, but I’ll always give the Writings the benefit of the doubt.” There have been enough times that I’ve thought, “That can’t be true because of x, y, or z,” only to later realize that I was wrong. For example, it seems impossible that there are people on the moon, as the Writings describe. I’m content to say, “I don’t understand how that could be possible – I trust it is somehow, I’m just not sure how at this point.” Maybe this attitude is what the Writings are describing when they talk about the way people in the faith of charity deal with things they don’t understand:
“Those who are in the faith of charity do not reason about the truths of faith, but say that the thing is so, and also as far as possible confirm it by things of sense and of memory, and by the analysis of reason; but as soon as anything obscure comes in their way the truth of which they do not perceive, they defer it, and never suffer such a thing to bring them into doubt, saying that there are but very few things they can apprehend, and therefore to think that anything is not true because they do not apprehend it, would be madness.” (Arcana Coelestia 1072)
And although I do hold out the possibility that there may be errors in natural things (although as I say, I’m not even sure of that), I trust that when they describe spiritual realities, they are completely true.
So, to sum up my perspective, as I've put it out in part one and part two: as much as possible, I tend to take the Writings at face value, expecting that they will declare the truth plainly. When I do come across something that seems to contradict a principle or a teaching from elsewhere in the Word, I try to see how the teachings can be reconciled, on the assumption that I'm not understanding fully. And if I come across a teaching that seems contradictory to my experience of the way life works, I try to reconcile that, as well - but in that case, I try to give the Word more weight than I do my own experience, from the belief that I can only see the appearance of things here, while the Word describes what's going on on a deeper level.
Now, I will admit that there are sometimes passages that give me pause. Sometimes it DOES seem like the Writings draw merely on reason and observation of the world to demonstrate a point; for example, Arcana Coelestia 8891 calls on common sense (rather than appealing to other passages in scripture) as evidence that the days of creation are not intended to be taken literally:
“But who that takes into consideration the particulars of the description cannot see that the creation of the universe is not there meant; for such things are there described as may be known from common sense not to have been so; as that there were days before the sun and the moon, as well as light and darkness, and that herbage and trees sprang up; and yet that the light was furnished by these luminaries, and a distinction was made between the light and the darkness, and thus days were made.”
I think, though, that passages like this are really drawing in rational, scientific truth to confirm something that can be seen by taking a “full view” of the Word. Still, as I say, passages like this do give me pause, and I’m not completely certain my way of approaching the Writings is exactly correct. And I think that’s the key – if I’m willing to be corrected, if I’m approaching revelation in humility, and above all if I’m trying to live in charity and love by the teachings of the Word – then hopefully I’ll be able to have my understanding straightened out over time in this world, and especially after death in the spiritual world. For now, this approach – of taking the Writings as much as possible at face value – seems to me to be the most faithful to their own advice on how to read them.
Coleman Glenn is a minister in the General Church of the New Jerusalem. Born and raised in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, he now lives in beautiful British Columbia, where he is the pastor of the Dawson Creek New Church. When he has time, he blogs at the comparative religion website patheos.com.