The Internal Sense of the Word
[NCBSP Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from a preface to "The Dictionary of Bible Imagery" (1973), by Alice Spiers Sechrist, a leading scholar of Swedenborgian theology and a skilled Latinist. It's a good introduction to the underpinnings of Swedenborg's Bible exposition.]
The method of biblical interpretation set forth in the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), Swedish scientist and seer — in itself an unusual coupling of interests — is as unique a system as its author was a philosopher. However, he disclaimed possession of it as an original invention, saying that it was well-known among the most ancient peoples, being the law that attests the unity and homogeneous nature of all creation, conjoining man’s inner world of the spirit — and its celestial wisdom — with his outer world of nature and science, and making possible communication between the human and the Divine, even to the point of conjoining human affection and thought with the divine love and wisdom, through what is good and true (Arcana Coelestia 911:2, 978:2, 1476).
Swedenborg called this symbolic system correspondence, using also the terms representative and significative. “Man does not comprehend naked spiritual truths,” he says, “and so they are presented in the Word by corresponding natural things.” Also: “Between the spiritual and the natural there is correspondence, and the things in nature that exist from spiritual things are representatives.” Persons in the Word, however, do not correspond to spiritual things, but represent something in the Lord, or in man’s acceptance or rejection of Him, and it is their functions or acts which are thus representative. Historical events recorded in the Bible also represent the spiritual states of man, either at some era in history, or in the course of an individual’s regeneration (Arcana Coelestia 1409, 6948; Apocalypse Revealed 768).
In illustration, Swedenborg cites the relationship between mind and body, the former representing man's spiritual world, and the latter his natural, or the world of nature. In one who has not been taught to dissemble, the expression of the face and the gestures of the body correspond to the affections and thoughts of the mind; or, in words often employed by Swedenborg, to the will and the understanding. The “forms” existing in the mind are effigied in the face, and in physical acts, but in the mind they are celestial and spiritual, while they are natural in the body. In brief, the natural things which appear in the outer man represent his internal self, and the particulars which agree with his internal, correspond to it (Arcana Coelestia 2987-2991; Heaqven and Hell 97-99).
Swedenborg goes on to say that the three kingdoms of nature — animal, vegetable, and mineral — correspond to or represent the spiritual world, down to their smallest particulars; for the causes of all that is in the world are from spiritual things, while their uses are from celestial things. “Blessed is he who is in correspondence, that is, whose external man corresponds to his internal” (Arcana Coelestia 2994).
CORRESPONDENCE IN SCRIPTURE
The Bible speaks of sun, moon, and stars, of times and seasons, of animals of all kinds — wild or domestic, in water, on land, or in the air; of lands and their valleys and mountains; of floods and rivers; of stones, common and precious; of metals — gold, silver, copper, iron; of storms and earthquakes; also of things directly produced by man: food, clothing, dwellings and temples, roads, ships, and cities; of the parts and organs of the human body; and of historical people and events. The realities of all these symbols mentioned in the Word are in man. Both the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of hell are in him, and in the Word also is pictured the warfare man undergoes to overcome the one and to yield to the other; and there are symbolic promises made “to him who overcometh.”
It is in this way that our Creator communicates with His creature. If you and I talk together, we do not reach each other in truth unless we communicate mind to mind and soul to soul: bodies do not communicate without their inner realities. So it is with the Lord’s Word: unless we address the spirit within the letter, and permit it to address us in return, we have ears that hear not, and eyes that do not see (Heaven and Hell 99-114).
Does Scripture Itself Suggest an Inner Content?
There is much in the Word itself to support Swedenborg’s thesis. In his Apocalypse Explained he states that in its ultimate or lowest form, that is, in the languages of earth, it is like a man clothed, but with hands and feet bare, or all that is essential to salvation openly expressed in the letter. Where it is thus bare, its goods and truths appear as they are in heaven, or with the spiritual sense evident in the literal sense. He compares the outer meaning to the garments of the Lord, while the inner is likened to His body. From still another viewpoint, the Word is like the garments mentioned in the crucifixion story in John: the outer garment was divided among four soldiers, but the inner vesture or tunic, being without seam, was assigned by lot to one only. This signifies the dispersal and falsification of the external truths of the Law and the Prophets by the church of that era — which was only a representative of a church; but that the internal sense could not be falsified, as it was protected by the letter (Arcana Coelestia 9035; Apocalypse Explained 644, 776; True Christian Religion 130).
For some supporting literal statements in the Word, consider the following:
1. As the Word made flesh, the Lord said:
“It is the spirit that gives life... The words I speak to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).
“He said nothing to them without a parable” (Matthew 13:34).
2. In Psalm 78:2, we read: “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old.” Then follows a poem telling the history of the Sons of Israel and the trials they endured in leaving their state of servitude in Egypt and journeying to the Promised Land. Does this not suggest that they represent Everyman in his efforts to free himself from the dominion of external things, the “fleshpots of Egypt,” and to win the peace and security of the regenerate life? The land of Canaan represents a state of love to the Lord and the neighbor, or heaven. As a people the Israelites never fully reached that state, although probably some individuals did; so the land merely represented the state as an ideal, but did not correspond to it (Arcana Coelestia 1025:4, 1093, 1413).
3. There are many other situations and incidents in the Word of both Old and New Testaments which are obviously symbolic. Such is the creation story in the first chapters of Genesis: in Swedenborg’s system it describes, not the forming of our physical earth, but the re-forming or regeneration of man’s inner self. Here let us remind ourselves that only twice did our Lord in His Incarnation employ a word which is translated must, as absolutely binding upon his followers. These occasions are both in the Gospel of John:
"You MUST be born again” (John 3:7);
“Those who worship Him MUST worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
This is profoundly significant. In another internal sense (for there are layers within layers, or “Wheels within wheels” as Ezekiel puts it), the first two chapters of Genesis depict the building of the first Church among men, meaning by "church” not an ecclesiastical institution, but a certain type of celestial or spiritual life in a country, or in an epoch.
4. Then there is the account of the benedictions or maledictions pronounced upon his sons and their descendants by Jacob in Genesis 49, and also a number of contradictory statements in the letter of Scripture. For an example, we are given the Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother”; yet Jesus says in Luke 14:26, that unless a man “hate his father and mother ... he cannot be my disciple.” Swedenborg points out, in explaining such contradictions, that every correspondence or representative has both a positive and genuine significance, or a negative and opposite one. In the last quotation, it is the negative father and mother who are meant, the ruthless self-love and its mate, false thinking, which generate an evil life — the same parentage which is referred to when Eli’s sons, for instance, are called “sons of Belial.” It could not mean that Eli was Belial (Arcana Coelestia 6333).
Now if these accounts are not only true history, or even if they are fabrications, but also apply to the spiritual development and history of an individual or a race, why may not all of Scripture do the same? The primary object of the Word is to teach man about his spiritual nature, the life that leads to heaven, His Maker’s perfect love and wisdom, and how he may respond to Him; so does it matter that the accounts are not always literally true? Our Heavenly Father has no need to inspire a Word to teach His children things they may learn by their own investigations. We do not denounce Aesop’s Fables because they cannot be taken literally, but are designed to point a moral (Arcana Coelestia 6948; Heaven and Hell 89; Apocalypse Explained 985:4).
Swedenborg analyzed three scriptural books according to this law: in the Old Testament, Genesis and Exodus, and in the New Testament, the book of Revelation. However, scattered through all of his works, other passages are interpreted, particularly in his "Apocalypse Explained". On the other hand, many were not considered at all. Yet it is believed that the student will find here some help upon almost any verse in those books which Swedenborg accepted as being the Word. Certain books were excluded by him, and for a reason: in the Old Testament, Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon were unacceptable because they do not have that inmost sense which refers to the Lord alone. Of Job, he says that it was consciously written in correspondences for the people of an ancient church among whom the laws were known, a people later called “wise men of the east.” He also states that the Song of Solomon was produced in imitation of such writings (Arcana Coelestia 1756:2; Doctrine Regarding the Sacred Scripture 20).
In the New Testament only the four Gospels and Revelation are accepted by Swedenborg as belonging to the Word. He spoke of Paul as “inspired,” but says his inspiration did not go so far as to reach the inmost or celestial sense, which treats solely of the Lord Jesus Christ, the temptations to which His maternal humanity was subjected, His eventual Glorification and union with the Father, and his kingdom (Arcana Coelestia 3540; Apocalypse Explained 422, 543, 740:16).
[...] To man’s spirit, and to the angels, ideas are more important than words, and the same word may have different connotations in different passages. Several degrees of significance — discrete degrees, or separate but homogeneous frames of reference — exist in all scriptural symbols, for there are several interior senses, one within another.
Swedenborg especially mentions four degrees:
1. The inmost or celestial sense, that of the Celestial Heaven, the third or highest. As has been said, it treats of the Lord alone, and is that Scripture "concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27 which he unfolded, at least partially, after His resurrection to the two disciples whom He accompanied on the way to Emmaus, and whose "hearts burned within them” at the unfolding. Of course, no one on earth can enter that degree to the height of the celestial angels, hut we may view it from afar (Arcana Coelestia 1963, 1965, 8943, 9407; Doctrine Regarding the Sacred Scripture 39, 40, 80; Heaven and Hell 95).
2. The spiritual sense, for the regenerated men and women (angels) of the Spiritual, or middle, Heaven, and for regenerating people on earth who know that they must be bom again. It concerns especially love of the neighbor, and shunning evils as sins against God. It also tells the history of man’s spiritual development, his backslidings and his progressions, or his reception or rejection of the truths of the church universal. While the celestial sense deals primarily with the divine love, the spiritual treats of man’s relation to the divine truth (Doctrine Regarding the Sacred Scripture 39).
3. The celestial-natural and the spiritual-natural of the First or lowest Heaven, sometimes called by Swedenborg the Natural or Ultimate Heaven. In terms, this sense is about the same as the spiritual, or even the celestial; and there is much in Swedenborg to suggest that when he speaks in general of the inner meaning of the Word he means the spiritual-natural or the celestial-natural; for it is of something taught, something for us to learn and hold in the memory, as they seem to do in the Ultimate Heaven; whereas in the Spiritual and Celestial Heavens there is no need for external teaching: the angels come spontaneously into the form of the Word adapted to their states, and live in it (Doctrine Regarding the Sacred Scripture 5, 26, 39; Apocalypse Explained 375:2, 449, 629:6, 832:6; Heaven and Hell 414; Apocalypse Revealed 325).
4. Finally, there is the “proximate” sense, that nearest to the letter. This concerns the moral history of the Sons of Israel and their descendants; and also other nations or even historical individuals in the scripture stories. Swedenborg only occasionally touches upon this; but sometimes, rather disconcertingly, he will apply it to several verses when he has been explaining the previous passages on more internal levels. Similarly, now and then he will suddenly switch from the celestial to the spiritual, or vice versa, without explanation (Arcana Coelestia 4690).
In closing, I can do no better than to quote a passage from the hand of the Reverend William F. Wunsch, Swedenborgian minister and scholar, in which he gives expression to one of the principal teachings of Swedenborg, namely, that in thus opening the inner meaning of Scripture, the Lord is making His Second Coming in the “clouds of heaven,” i.e. the “cloudy” literal sense, so opened that the power and glory of the inner contents are revealed, and may appear to the clouded minds of men on earth.