As I said in my first post on the philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg, his massive amount of written work can be divided into three main areas: 1) his Biblical Interpretations and his founding of “the New Church,” 2) his (somewhat sci-fi) visions of the Spirit World, and 3) his metaphysical and quasi-psychological views.
Previously, I have written about his metaphysical and quasi-psychological views. Today, I’d like to briefly characterize his interpretations of the Bible and his belief that he was destined to be the founder of the fifth and final Church.
No Truck With The Trinity
Swedenborg had a couple of major beefs with the Christian religion as he found it in the 1700s. First off, he thought the Church’s insistence on a trinity-god was bunk.
Swedenborg believed that what the Church teaches as the three distinct personages of the Godhead are actually just three forms of the one true God. He points out that the early followers of Christ’s teachings “knew nothing whatsoever of a personal Trinity or of three persons of eternity.”
Swedenborg even goes so far as to say the dogma of the Trinity, established by the Council Of Nicaea in response to the Arian controversies, is so ridiculous and confusing that it has probably driven people away from the Church entirely.
Doctrine Of Justification By Faith Alone Is Bullocks
The other major disagreement Swedenborg had with Christianity besides the trinity-god thing was with the view that one could be “justified,” or saved from eternal damnation, by Faith alone. He felt there was no such thing as “Faith alone.” For Swedenborg, if we truly have Faith in Jesus and accept his teachings, good works will naturally flow out from us as a consequence of that faith. To offer my own analogy, if we are a candle truly “lit” with Faith, our good works will naturally shine out upon the world. Faith without Works is like can of tuna setting on the plate without a can-opener.
Letters Of (The Apostate) Paul
Swedenborg’s abhorrence of the Doctrine Of Salvation By Faith Alone causes him to detest the Biblical Paul. This is because, centuries later, the Doctrine Of Justification By Faith would grow out of ideas contained within the works of Paul.
Paul (who never met Jesus) sent several letters to the early converts to Christianity; these missives advised individuals and the nascent churches on how to deal with issues arising as the new faith grew. Paul also did not refrain from espousing his personal interpretations of the life, death, and teachings of Jesus Of Nazareth. Much of the dogma of Christianity can be attributed to Paul’s notions.
Some of Paul’s letters ended up being included in the collection of writings that would become the standard Bible. However, Swedenborg did not accept Paul’s letters as divinely inspired. He considers the doctrines contained therein personal interpretations and idiosyncratic teachings.
In fact, once Swedenborg started visiting the Spirit World (just go with it), he discovered that it was well known to the spirits there that Paul’s letters did not contain the true Word. Swedenborg believed that Paul never lost his enormous ego; the same ego that drove him to be Christian persecutor Numero Uno later morphed into his unbridled spiritual aspirations and his drive to spread the reach of the Church. Swedenborg claims that the other apostles (yeah, living now in the Spirit World), will have nothing to do with Paul.
Swedenborg spent an immense amount of time interpreting the Bible, In fact, this was his major line of work once he stopped doing science.
Swedenborg had a sort of Kabalistic view of the Bible, considering that the Good Book contained a code. He believed that every color, figure, animal, and plant in the Bible could be viewed symbolically. Minerals represent fundamental Principles. Plants correspond with human knowledge and wisdom—with each individual type of plant possessing its own particular meaning. And when animals appear in the Bible, they symbolize the appetites and desires.
One interesting Biblical exegesis Swedenborg attempted—and this is back before he began having his visions—was the explanation of the long life-spans the Bible says was possessed by early human beings. He believed this could be explained using his astronomical theory that the Earth previously went faster around the Sun than it does today.
If memory serves, the early humans listed in the Bible were living sometimes five hundred years or more. If we allow that they had life-spans which would equate to one hundred years today, that means the Earth had to be going around the Sun more than five times as fast as it currently does. And though I have heard theories that the Earth’s orbit really is slowing, I’ve never heard a number quite that high for any period in which humans would have been around.
Swedenborg also comes up with his own Creation Myth… but it is so horrendously tiresome that I cannot relate it to you for I eventually did myself a solid and skipped over that part. Suffice it to say, John Milton, Swedenborg is not.
The Bible does not speak very specifically about Hell, but that’s okay because Swedenborg does. Not only what it’s like, but how his enemies are doing there.
Swedenborg discovered during his tours through the Spirit World that Hell is actually a reflection of the soul of a sinner. People in Hell are those who carry their evil inner states (resulting from envy, rage, and greed) with them from our world into the after-life. Because of the bad feelings that such negative emotions generate for a person, sin becomes its own punishment.
I found it interesting to read about some of the people Swedenborg found in Hell. For instance, there’s Polhem, the man in whose intellectual shadow Swedenborg was begrudgingly forced to walk. This would also be the same Polhem that denied Swedenborg the opportunity to court his daughter. When Swedenborg encounters him in Hell, Polhem has been sentenced to building mechanical cats.
Then there’s Swedenborg’s rival from his days running Sweden’s mining industry. The man, Hjarne by name, winds up spending his time in the Spirit World with a particularly nasty set of evil spirits.
Also, turns out that the husband of the woman Swedenborg felt was his soulmate has been sent to Hell, too. One gets the distinct impression that, like Dante, Swedenborg is not a man to cross, as he obviously holds the keys to the Gates Of Hell, like a flipside version of Saint Peter.
The New Church
Swedenborg eventually came to believe that, not only was he ordained to re-interpret the Bible for the human race, but that it was his job to fix the broken Church. According to Swedenborg scholar Ernst Benz, by the end of Swedenborg’s life, he was even suggesting that his writings fulfilled the promise of the Second Coming of Christ.
“Since the Lord cannot manifest himself in person,” says Swedenborg, “[…] and nevertheless has foretold that he was to come and establish a New Church” […] “it follows that he will do this by means of a man who is able not only to receive those doctrines in his understanding but also to publish them.” Talk about ego trips… the Second-freakin-Coming?
And writing of his trips to the Spirit World, he explains, “In order that the true Christian religion might be developed, it was necessary for someone to be introduced to the Spiritual World and hear the truths of the Word from the mouth of the Lord.”
Considering it his duty, then, to fulfill the promise that Christ will return and found a New Church, Swedenborg explains that his New Church will be the fifth and final in the series of Churches that have existed on Earth.
“The history of the salvation of humankind consists in the mysterious succession of new Churches,” states Swedenborg, “which constantly counter the decay of religion and community life.” […] “A Church always existed since the creation of humankind” and “the world cannot exist without a Church” for “in the absence of a link to Heaven and thereby to the Lord, the human race would not be human, but a beast.”
Swedenborg lists the succession of the Five Churches: 1) the Most Ancient Church, 2) the Ancient Church, 3) the Israelite Church, 4) the Christian Church, and then last but certainly not least, Swedenborg’s own 5) New Church.
Swedenborg’s New Church, based on his teachings and his interpretations of the Bible, is here to finally reveal the true meaning of the Divine Word. Swedenborg equates the New Church with Revelation’s “New Jerusalem.”
“Church history is the spiritual history of humankind,” he explains. “Its phases correspond to humanity’s levels of understanding in its progress toward spiritual being.”
Apparently, there was some sort of Day Of Judgment in Heaven in 1757, and this made it possible for the New Church to be established through its prophet, your humble servant, Emanuel Swedenborg.
Other Hammering Shield articles on Swedenborg: