By Stuart Shotwell, Managing Editor, New Century Edition
“The Bible is literally true” is a claim that is at least theoretically accepted by a broad swath of Christian readers today, who thus speak of the inerrancy of scripture. Swedenborg would agree that in its higher sense, scripture (the Word) does not err; but at the same time, he would be the first to insist that in its literal sense it appears inconsistent:
Statements in the Word often seem to differ with and almost contradict each other. For instance, there are statements that the Lord leads us into trial and other statements that he does not; statements that the Lord repents and other statements that he does not; statements that the Lord acts in anger and wrath and other statements that he acts with pure compassion and mercy; statements that the soul faces judgment immediately after death and other statements that it waits till the Last Judgment; and so on. (Secrets of Heaven 9025)
But Swedenborg would also be the first to insist, and in very strenuous terms, on the indispensability of the literal meaning:
The Word without its literal meaning would be like a temple containing an abundance of holy objects, with a central inner sanctum, but without a roof or walls to contain them. If these were lacking or were taken away, its holy contents would be plundered by thieves or torn apart by the beasts of the earth and the birds of heaven, and would therefore be scattered far and wide. (Sacred Scripture 33)
According to Swedenborg, then, parts of the Bible’s literal content may be both apparently untrue and yet critically important to the structure of the Bible’s truth. How can this be?
One of the themes Swedenborg has in common with Neoplatonism is the notion that all manifested being radiates from God at the center and “steps down” by degrees until it reaches its outermost limit in materiality. He described this series of degrees in the following terms:
In every work of God there is something first, something intermediate, and something last; and what is first works through what is intermediate to what is last and in this way becomes manifest and persists, so what is last is a foundation. The first is also in the intermediate, and through the intermediate is in what is last, so what is last is a container; and since what is last is a container and a foundation, it is also a support. (Sacred Scripture 27)
And this same system is applied to the Bible:
There are three levels of meaning in the Word. . . . The heavenly meaning is its first level, the spiritual meaning its intermediate level, and the earthly meaning its last level. This enables anyone who thinks rationally to conclude that the first level of the Word, the heavenly, works through its intermediate, which is the spiritual, to the last level, which is the earthly. We can also conclude that the last level is therefore a foundation. We can conclude further that the first level (the heavenly) is within the intermediate level (the spiritual), and through this in the last level (the earthly), which means that the last level (the earthly), which is the literal meaning of the Word, is a container; and since it is a container and a foundation, it is also a support. (Sacred Scripture 31)
The literal meaning, then, provides a container for the inner meaning, just as the body (which as a physical thing is part of the last, outermost extent of the outflow from the divine center) provides a container for the soul.
The disconnect between Swedenborg’s understanding and that of much of contemporary Christianity occurs in his definition of “the literal.” By this term he means the narrative detail of the text, not its historicity; that is, he means what the story describes as happening in any particular passage. Whether those events ever actually occurred is of little interest to him. Some passages he accepts as historical, and others he does not. His point in insisting on the need for a container for the inner meaning is that there must be some ideational structure to hold meaning. Thus the schema of regeneration he lays out in his exegesis of Genesis 1 depends on the details of the creation of the world in the biblical account. The parables of Jesus form an obvious parallel: remove the details of the prodigal son who spends his inheritance, and there is no substructure on which the inner meaning of the tale can rest. One has to have notes to have music. Thus for Swedenborg, the Bible is true and inerrant with respect to its inner meaning, even if it is not necessarily true and inerrant in respect to the historical accuracy of every story it recounts.
According to his system, “out here,” far from the deep center of all from which God radiates forth love and wisdom—in this material world that Swedenborg calls the ultima, the “farthest things”—we need that literal meaning, just as our souls require a body in which to dwell. The angels, by contrast, do not need the “story facts” of the Word; they can directly understand the inner meaning of the Word, just as they can live without physical bodies:
They understand in a spiritual way the details that we understand in an earthly way, and they understand what those details really mean. This is the inner or spiritual meaning of the Word. (New Jerusalem 1:2)
This understanding of the “literal meaning” of the Bible as detached from any question of actual historicity is by no means exclusive to Swedenborg. In fact, it was the most prominent understanding of the literal until claims of the historical inerrancy of the Bible came to the fore in Protestant movements during the nineteenth century. Some fathers of the church show little interest in the historical accuracy of the biblical accounts; see, for example, Origen’s description of the story of the Garden of Eden as having an appropriately allegorical meaning rather than being historically true (Against Celsus 4:39). In that respect, Swedenborg is working in a long and well-accepted tradition.
Origen. Against Celsus. Translated by Frederick Crombie. In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994.
Swedenborg, Emanuel. New Jerusalem (unpublished translation by George F. Dole, November 10, 2015).
Swedenborg, Emanuel. Sacred Scripture / White Horse. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2015.
Swedenborg, Emanuel. Secrets of Heaven (unpublished translation by Lisa Hyatt Cooper, November 10, 2015).