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Rev. Dr. Reuben P. Bell 


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; ...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. (1)

    Upon this elegant statement in the Gospel of John rests the weight of the Judeo-Christian tradition. To the Jews, the idea of the Word, or the Holy Scriptures, is as a direct extension of God, the unknowable Creator, into the material world. The written Word thus has a mystical structure far beyond its obvious literal presence and utility. Although still unknowable, God is nonetheless approachable in the very real and palpable form of the Word. And as John, a good Jew, fully understood, the Word was God. To the Christians, those misunderstood followers of prophetic destiny, this theology was equally valid. But to the two levels of existence acknowledged for God, they would add another, radical emanation: their Word "became flesh and dwelt among us". From this was born a major force in history. But as the movement matured and took shape, its understanding of these mystical realities acquired a doctrinal structure which alienated it from the clarity of its familiar roots in John's statement of faith. John's statement not only serves as a bridge between the Jewish and Christian theological paradigms, but also serves as an anchor to the simplicity of our Christian theology, when stripped of its divisive doctrinal fortifications.

    The Word, then, is obviously not just the book it seems to be. It is a complex mystical nucleus around which revolves our knowledge of God and the foundation of our behavior as His creation. And as the understanding implicit in John's opening verses implies, there is more than one level on which we can approach God. It is this understanding, based in part on Jewish Biblical tradition, and in part on mystical elements unique to Christianity, which leads us to a concept of levels of understanding within the written Word itself. As we shall see, it is this stratified nature which lends itself to the revelation of spiritual truths in a systematic way.

    The traditional approach to the Word has been in its obvious literal sense, with the predictable dichotomy of opinion between the appropriateness of either literal or allegorical interpretation. Some would pick and choose between these extremes to suit their purposes. However the fundamental problem in exegesis is not this dichotomy at all. It is the historical agreement on the literal sense as the sum of spiritual substance to be found in the Scriptures. Spiritual enlightenment has historically been considered sporadic and unique to individuals and circumstances, and not systematic in any way. There is, however, another, more universal approach to the Word, which transcends either of these extremes. It is not just a compromise between them, and it allows unlimited depth of understanding. It is the idea that simultaneous levels of understanding exist within the Word, and that these levels interact with or respond to the reader's ability to comprehend them. It is an expansive principle, introduced to Christian thought by Emanuel Swedenborg as the manifested revelation of a New Church coming into the world. It is a system that meshes nicely with John's splendid description of a God on more than one plane, and which is also in harmony with the Jewish mystical tradition which reached the same conclusion on the nature of the Word.

    The Word has obvious literal meaning, which any educated person can read and comprehend. But Swedenborg tells us that there is a larger, richer, internal sense that exists simultaneously within the obvious. He explains that: 

From the mere letter of the Word of the Old Testament no one would ever discern the fact that this part of the Word contains deep secrets of heaven, and that everything within it both in general and in particular bears reference to the Lord, to His heaven, to the church, to religious belief, and to all things connected therewith; for from the letter or sense of the letter all that any one can see is that - to speak generally -everything therein has reference merely to the external rites and ordinances of the Jewish Church. Yet the truth is that everywhere in that Word there are internal things which never appear at all in the external things except a very few which the Lord revealed and explained to the Apostles. (2)  

This internal sense is the level of understanding available on the spiritual plane, and it is representative in nature. It links the reader directly with its source, in a simultaneous exercise of conscious comprehension of literal meaning and unconscious communion with the Divine:

What is from the Divine descends through the heavens even to man; wherefore in the heavens it is accommodated to the wisdom of the angels who are there, and on earth it is accommodated to the apprehension of the men who are there. Wherefore in the Word there is an internal sense, which is spiritual, for the angels, and an external sense, which is natural, for men. Hence it is that the conjunction of heaven with man is effected through the Word. (3)  

The ability of a person in the natural world to comprehend the truths contained in the spiritual, internal sense depends not so much on his desire to do so, but upon that person's spiritual state and his rational ability to comprehend it. This suggests a dynamic interplay between Word and reader; God and man. In a fascinatingly parallel statement, Scholem the Kabbalist, in discussing the infinite significance of Divine speech, states that "a direct consequence of this belief was the principle that the content of the Torah possessed infinite meaning, which revealed itself differently at different levels according to the capacity of its contemplator." (4) This capacity is termed "enlightenment" by Swedenborg, and  

They are enlightened from the Word, who read it from the love of truth and good, but not they who read it from the love of fame, of gain, or of honor, thus from the love of self. They are enlightened who are in the good of life, and thereby in the affection of truth. They are enlightened whose internal is open, thus who as to their internal man are capable of elevation into the light of heaven. Enlightenment is an actual opening of the interiors of the mind, and also an elevation into the light of heaven. (5)   

    Swedenborg's revelation of the presence of the internal sense adds a new dimension to our ability to approach conjunction with the Lord through the study of the Word. Knowledge of this sense only confirms what people have suspected all along. But it is Swedenborg's doctrine of this internal sense, stating that it is now ours to use, that makes this new dimension truly epochal in magnitude. And it was the magnitude of this development which led Swedenborg to announce not just a New Church, but to assert: the internal sense is the very doctrine of the church. They who understand the Word according to the internal sense, know the essential true doctrine of the church, inasmuch as the internal sense contains it. (6)  

    Apparently then, the New Church, as seen through Swedenborg's mystical lens, rests firmly on this foundation. The ability of humans to discern the internal sense directly by contemplation of the Word, and to use the truths so revealed for the work of their own regeneration, was the doorway into a new age; the New Jerusalem. As Swedenborg described it: "From now on, enter into the mysteries of the Word which have so far been hidden: for each one of its truths is a mirror in which we see the Lord." (7)

    Having established that there is an internal sense to the Word, and that each of us is receptive of it according to our individual spiritual attitude, something must now be said as to the actual method prescribed by Swedenborg for perceiving it. Although the art of elucidating spiritual knowledge is at best rudimentary for any human, we are nonetheless encouraged by Swedenborg to develop the skill by earnest application and simple practice. The spiritual truths which lie otherwise hidden within the literal expression of the Word are enclosed in what Swedenborg calls correspondences - simply, spiritual things represented by the literal, factual things in the narrative. As he describes it:

In the Word there is a spiritual sense, which is called the internal sense. No one can know what the internal sense of the Word is, unless he knows what correspondence is. The whole and every part, even to the most minute, of the natural world, corresponds to spiritual things, and thence is significative of them. The spiritual things to which natural things correspond assume another appearance in the natural, so that they are not

distinguished. Scarcely any one knows at this day, where, or in what part is the Divine of the Word, when nevertheless it is in its internal or spiritual sense, which at this day is not known. (8)  

This is not to say that one thing in the Word exists to simply remind us of another thing, or that there is some "secret code" which can be "cracked" and used to open the floodgates of spiritual truths from the Divine. In fact, this definition for the system of correspondence is worse than simplistic.    Correspondence implies that a thing in the material world actually emanates from its counterpart in the spiritual world, and the two are temporally linked as one thing in two expressions. The concept is not unique to Swedenborg. Once again we can find harmony with the Kabbalistic idea of emanations from the Divine into levels of creation, with all things within these levels eternally linked and interactive. The roots of this notion are also found in the Plato's philosophical marriage of spirit and reality. But despite evidence for an ancient thread of belief in a correspondential theology, it fell to Swedenborg to raise our level of understanding of this principle to a new and pragmatic sophistication. He gave us correspondence not just to ponder, but to use - tools for our regeneration. In his own words:

Few know what representations and correspondences are nor can any one know this unless he knows that there is a spiritual world, and this distinct from the natural world; for there exists a correspondence between spiritual things and natural things, and the things that come forth from spiritual things in natural ones are representations. They are called correspondences because they correspond, and representations because they represent. (9)  

His notion of just how this relationship is actually manifested in terms of our experience is offered in another discussion of the orderliness of creation:

In all and each of the things in nature and her three kingdoms there is an inward active force from the spiritual world; and unless this were so, nothing whatever in the natural world could act as cause and effect, and consequently nothing could be produced. That which is within natural things from the spiritual world is called a force implanted from the first creation; whereas it is an endeavor [conatus], on the cessation of which, action or motion ceases. Hence it is that the universal visible world is a theater representative of the spiritual world. (10)  

The idea of correspondence, or any other great truth, can be understood in general terms quite readily, because truth resonates directly with our rational minds, with little need for explanation. It should be understood, however, that the full ramifications of this principle are beyond human comprehension, and as we attempt to apply it this must be appreciated at all times. As with any tool, we are encouraged to use it to the best of our abilities, keeping in mind that an art is never mastered.

    Although we are told that correspondences are present in the Word, we are also told that they are not immediately obvious to the reader. In order that we might recognize and understand these correspondences, Swedenborg devoted a good portion of his theological writing to the systematic doing of correspondential interpretation. This served two great aims: First, the internal sense of much of the Word was revealed for us directly by Swedenborg, in his many discussions of specific Bible passages. Secondly, by doing so, he demonstrated the method by which anyone in the right spiritual posture might do the same. This second, enormously important consideration is often overlooked by those who would assign too much emphasis to Swedenborg's writings as dogma, and not as doctrine. His mission was the teaching of a dynamic, open-ended method, not just a corpus of knowledge. In his Writings, Swedenborg describes what has been present in the Word since its beginnings, explaining that only now is it time for us to see what is there. His commission, as he understood it, was to reveal these "heavenly secrets" as he called them, to the world, and to demonstrate their use. Hence the Arcana Coelestia, Apocalypse Revealed, and other major theological works were written.

    Correspondences, then, are not just Swedenborg's definitions of words found in Scripture, with respect to their particular spiritual meaning. Examination of The Swedenborg Concordance, compiled by Potts (11) will quickly show that Swedenborg often assigned several spiritual definitions to the same word, according to its use in context, and the topic under consideration. Although this at first might seem confusing or arbitrary, it tells us that Swedenborg was demonstrating the great science of correspondences: There are general rules which govern the uses of a word, but the science itself depends on the context and the reader's perspective. There are many messages in the same Word. By reading a passage or section of Scripture with attention to the correspondences, a new and different message emerges from the words as they otherwise appear. The correspondences remind us of great principles, truths, and relationships governing our spiritual lives, most notably our path of personal regeneration. The Scripture suddenly speaks to us, in a personal way that no literal interpretation could ever do. The Word, then, allows an immediate communion between God and the individual who reads it. Gone is the allegory; the historical contextual problems inherent in a work of such age. Gone is the problematic presence of facts and details which defy explanation, such as are found throughout the literal story of the Hebrew Bible. And gone is the temptation to extract pieces of this Word, for use out of context, in our arguments and sectarian polemics, for these truths are universal! Without alteration or omission, the literal language of the Scriptures is augmented by these correspondences, to a new and infinitely useful level.

    Swedenborg's writings then, instruct us in two ways - in the specific spiritual nature of certain things, and in a method to find these out ourselves - both by the use of correspondences. Once mastered, this science of spiritual meanings within the literal language of the Word transcends mere words and opens every personís door into the New Jerusalem. 


1      John 1:1 -2, 1:14.  Holy Bible (NIV)

2     Swedenborg, Emanuel, Arcana Coelestia, Swedenborg Foundation, New York, 1984, Vol. 1, n. 1.

3     Swedenborg, Emanuel, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine, Swedenborg Foundation, 1988, n. 252.

4     Scholem, Gershom, Kabbalah, Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd., 1974, p.172.

5     Swedenborg, Emanuel, The White Horse, Swedenborg Foundation, New York, 1988, n. 7.

6     Swedenborg, Emanuel, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine, Swedenborg Foundation, New York, 1988, n. 260.

7     Swedenborg, Emanuel, The True Christian Religion, Swedenborg Society, London, 1988, n. 508.

8     Swedenborg, Emanuel, The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine, Swedenborg Foundation, New York, 1988, n.258.

9     Swedenborg, Emanuel, Arcana Coelestia, Swedenborg Foundation, 1988, n.2987.

10     Swedenborg, Emanuel, Arcana Coelestia, Swedenborg Foundation, 1988, n.5173.2

11     Potts, John F., The Swedenborg Concordance, The Swedenborg Society, London, 1976.