Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Luca:
Paul’s letters have a central role in Christian doctrine, yet Swedenborg does not mention them. Why? Thanks.
Thanks for the good question, Luca.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) does quote from Paul’s letters in his later theological writings, especially in his final great work of systematic theology, True Christianity. However, in his first published theological work and his greatest work of Bible interpretation, Secrets of Heaven, traditionally known by its Latin title Arcana Coelestia, he does not. Here is his own explanation, in answer to one of his early followers:
In respect to the writings of the apostles and of Paul, I have not quoted them in the Arcana Coelestia, because they are doctrinal writings, and consequently are not written in the style of the Word, like those of the prophets, of David, of the Evangelists, and the Book of Revelation. The style of the Word consists altogether of correspondences, wherefore it is effective of immediate communication with heaven; but in doctrinal writings there is a different style, which has indeed communication with heaven, but mediately. They were written thus by the apostles, that the new Christian Church might be commenced through them; wherefore matters of doctrine could not be written in the style of the Word, but they had to be expressed in such a manner as to be understood more clearly and intimately. The writings of the apostles are, nevertheless, good books of the church, insisting upon the doctrine of charity and its faith as strongly as the Lord himself has done in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation; as may be seen and found evident by everyone who in reading them directs his attention to these points. That Paul’s expression in Romans 3:28, concerning Justification by Faith, has been quite misunderstood, is proved in the Apocalypsis Revelata no. 417, to which you may refer; wherefore the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, which constitutes the theology of the Reformed churches at the present day, is built on an entirely false foundation. (From an April 15, 1766, letter to Dr. Gabriel Beyer published in English translation in R.L. Tafel’s Documents concerning Swedenborg, Document 224, link added)
We’ll dig into all of this further along in the article. But first, we need to take a look at the “canon” of the Bible, or which books are included in the Bible, and why. As it turns out, it’s a much more complicated question than most Christians realize.
The biblical canon
Most Christians don’t think too much about where the Bible came from. They just hold a book in their hands, maybe read it, and believe that this book was given by God.
However, what’s in the book in their hands will depend greatly upon which branch of Christianity they belong to. For example:
- The Bible that Protestants hold in their hands will have 66 books in it.
- The Bible that Roman Catholics hold in their hands will have 73 books in it.
- The Bible that Orthodox Christians hold in their hands will have about 79 books in it.
- The Bible that Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo hold in their hands will have 81 books in it.
And if Martin Luther had been successful in his attempt to remove four New Testament books, the Protestant Bible would have had only 62 books, not 66.
You see, there was no pronouncement from God as to which books should be in the Bible. Rather, the “canon” of the Bible was decided over many centuries, starting in pre-Christian Judaism, and then by various Christian theologians and councils over the centuries of the Christian era. And the church councils of the different branches of Christianity didn’t agree with one another about which books should be included in the Bible.
It was a very long and complicated process. Much too long and complicated to cover here. For the short version, plus charts of various biblical canons used in different branches of Christianity, see the Wikipedia article on “Biblical canon.”
Many Christians would be surprised to learn that the final decisions about which books are included in the Bible that they hold in their hands were made at church councils held only four or five centuries ago—over 1,400 years after the last of the books of the New Testament were originally written.
Now, we could argue till the cows come home about which of the various Christian canons is correct. And the theologians of the various branches of Christianity have done just that. But for our purposes, the main point is that it was not God, but human beings who decided which books should and shouldn’t be in the Bible—and they didn’t all agree with one another. That’s why there are almost as many “Bibles” as there are branches of the Christian Church.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Swedenborg, who had quite a different view of the Bible than did the various Christian churches of his day, should have settled upon yet a different canon of the Bible.
Without further ado, here are the books of the Old and New Testaments that Swedenborg included in his canon of the Bible:
- 1 Samuel
- 2 Samuel
- 1 Kings
- 2 Kings
Swedenborg’s canon of the Bible consists of 34 books: 29 in the Old Testament and 5 in the New Testament. This is smaller than any of the canons used by the various branches of traditional Christianity. It does not add any books that are not included in those canons, however.
In the Old Testament, Swedenborg’s canon includes all of the books in the Law (Torah) and Prophets (Nevi’im), plus Psalms, Lamentations, and Daniel from the Ketuvim, or “Writings.” (These are the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, used in Judaism.) The rest of the books of the Ketuvim, plus the deuterocanonical books included in Catholic and Orthodox canons of the Old Testament, are not included in Swedenborg’s canon.
In the New Testament, Swedenborg’s canon includes the books in which the life and teachings of Jesus Christ himself are given (the four Gospels) and “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (see Revelation 1:1). It does not include the book of Acts or the Epistles.
Swedenborg’s listing and explanation of his canon
Here is the listing from Secrets of Heaven #10325:
The books of the Word are all those that have an internal sense; books that do not have it are not the Word. The books of the Word in the Old Testament are: The five Books of Moses; the Book of Joshua; the Book of Judges; the two Books of Samuel; the two Books of Kings; the Psalms of David; and the Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. And in the New Testament they are: The four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; and the Book of Revelation.
The other two listings are copied from this listing in Secrets of Heaven, with only minor variations in wording. The books listed are the same in all three places. “The five Books of Moses” are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which together are called “the Law” or “Moses” in the Gospels.
Perhaps even more interesting than the particular books listed is the reason he includes these books in his canon of the Word of God: “The books of the Word are all those that have an internal sense,” he says; “books that do not have it are not the Word.”
Swedenborg’s reason for including a book in his canon of the Bible is very different from the usual reasons of authority, reliability, church tradition, and so on that are given for the various traditional Christian canons of the Bible. His criteria for inclusion is that a book have “an internal sense,” by which he means a deeper, spiritual and divine meaning that runs continuously from one word, verse, book, and chapter to the next throughout the entire Bible. For more on this spiritual meaning in the Bible, please see, “Can We Really Believe the Bible?”
He says that some of the books that he does not include, such as Job and the Song of Solomon, do have spiritual meanings in them, but not in the continuous and connected way that it is present in the books that he includes in the Word of God. Other books, he says (in the quote from his letter to Dr. Beyer given at the beginning of this article), are “doctrinal writings,” meant to explain the teachings of the newly forming Christian church more clearly and directly than could be done in the books that have an inner meaning. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Swedenborg’s use of the Protestant Bible
In other words, Swedenborg doesn’t reject the books of the other Christian canons that he doesn’t include as part of the Word of God. For example, he calls the Epistles “good books of the church.” He simply doesn’t see them as having the deeper divine inspiration of a spiritual meaning that, in his theology, makes a book part of God’s Word.
Even in Secrets of Heaven, Swedenborg quotes from various books of the Old Testament of the Protestant Bible that are not part of his own biblical canon, referring to them as “the Word” in traditional Protestant fashion. In his later works, he quotes more and more often from the Acts and the Epistles, including Paul’s letters, also sometimes referring to them as “the Word” in traditional Protestant fashion, and using them to support the doctrines he is teaching.
Though Swedenborg himself left Protestantism, rejecting all of its major doctrines, he was raised in the Lutheran tradition, and his theological writings were aimed primarily at a Protestant audience.
In other words, for the purposes of establishing his doctrinal principles, Swedenborg used the entire Protestant Bible very similarly to the way Protestant theologians do. Practically speaking, he didn’t take away anything from the Protestant Bible that Protestants themselves attribute to it. He even said that the writings of the apostles have a certain level of inspiration from the Holy Spirit.
What he did, rather, was to ascribe far greater depths of divine meaning to the books that he included in his canon of scripture—something that traditional Christians commonly did in the first millennium of Christianity, but that had been largely lost sight of by the time of the Protestant Reformation.
- Swedenborg didn’t take anything away from the books of the Protestant Bible not included in his own canon.
- Instead, Swedenborg gave far greater depth to the books of the Bible that he did include in his canon.
That is why here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life we quote from the entire Protestant canon of the Bible in support of the teachings of true Christianity. The Protestant Bible contains the minimum canon of books accepted as authoritative in all of the branches of traditional Christianity.
The Acts and the Epistles in particular, when read accurately and with an understanding of their original religious, cultural, and historical context, fully support the Christian doctrines in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. They do not support the main doctrinal tenets of traditional Christianity, especially in its Catholic and Protestant branches. For more on this, please these two pages, and the articles linked from them:
The Epistles are “doctrinal writings”
Now let’s take a closer look at what Swedenborg wrote to Dr. Beyer about the Epistles, including the letters of Paul. Here, once again, is the first half of the section quoted above from his letter to Dr. Beyer on that subject:
In respect to the writings of the apostles and of Paul, I have not quoted them in the Arcana Coelestia, because they are doctrinal writings, and consequently are not written in the style of the Word, like those of the prophets, of David, of the Evangelists, and the Book of Revelation. The style of the Word consists altogether of correspondences, wherefore it is effective of immediate communication with heaven; but in doctrinal writings there is a different style, which has indeed communication with heaven, but mediately. They were written thus by the apostles, that the new Christian Church might be commenced through them; wherefore matters of doctrine could not be written in the style of the Word, but they had to be expressed in such a manner as to be understood more clearly and intimately.
By the “correspondences” of which the style of the Word (as Swedenborg understands it) consists, Swedenborg means a living and very detailed relationship between deeper spiritual and divine realities and the literal stories, prophecies, poetry, and parables of the Bible. For more on this deeper meaning of the Bible, once again, please see the article, “Can We Really Believe the Bible?”
In today’s terminology, Swedenborg viewed the Word of God as having a metaphorical or symbolic meaning throughout.
Paul and the other apostles made use of metaphor in their writings as well. See, for example, the passage about “the whole armor of God” in Ephesians 6:10–17. However, for the most part the apostles wrote more plainly and directly, explaining various Christian teachings and beliefs, and instructing their readers on how to live a good life according to Jesus’ commandments. In most parts of the Epistles there is no need to look for deeper meanings. The message is right there in the plain meaning of the words.
Compare this to Jesus’ method of teaching, which was almost entirely in “parables”: metaphorical language that has deeper meanings hidden within it. For example, if we try to read the Parable of the Sower literally, we reduce it to a rather simplistic manual on farming. Obviously, that’s not what Jesus was talking about. He was using people’s common experience to point to deeper spiritual truths. That’s how all of the books that Swedenborg includes in his canon of the Word of God are written: with continuous deeper meanings that tell us about our own spiritual rebirth process, and about Jesus Christ’s victorious battles on our behalf against the powers of darkness that were holding us in abject slavery.
This is the distinction Swedenborg is making between the books of the inspired Word of God, all of which have an internal meaning, and the writings of Paul and the other apostles, which are “doctrinal writings” that “had to be expressed in such a manner as to be understood more clearly and intimately” for the sake of the founding and establishing of the nascent Christian Church.
“Good books of the church”
And here, once again, is the second part of the section quoted above from Swedenborg’s letter to Beyer:
The writings of the apostles are, nevertheless, good books of the church, insisting upon the doctrine of charity and its faith as strongly as the Lord himself has done in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation; as may be seen and found evident by everyone who in reading them directs his attention to these points. That Paul’s expression in Romans 3:28, concerning Justification by Faith, has been quite misunderstood, is proved in the Apocalypsis Revelata no. 417, to which you may refer; wherefore the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, which constitutes the theology of the Reformed churches at the present day, is built on an entirely false foundation.
Protestants commonly believe that Paul’s writings are all about establishing faith alone as the key doctrine of Christianity. But the simple fact of the matter is Paul never even used the term “faith alone,” let alone taught it. In addition to the highly informative (and rather entertaining) story from the spiritual world told in Apocalypse Revealed #417, linked in the above quotation from Swedenborg’s letter to Beyer, here are two articles that cover this in more detail:
- Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does
- Faith Alone Is Not Faith
And there are plenty more where these came from!
If Paul’s letters are read properly, without the blinders of the doctrine of justification by faith alone that Martin Luther invented to distinguish his church from the Roman Catholic Church that he was breaking away from, neither Paul nor any of the other apostles teaches salvation or justification by faith alone.
Instead, as Swedenborg says here, the Epistles “insist upon the doctrine of charity and its faith as strongly as the Lord himself has done in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation; as may be seen and found evident by everyone who in reading them directs his attention to these points.” In other words, they teach both “charity,” or the doing of good works for our fellow human beings, and “faith,” which is not only believing in Jesus Christ, but being faithful to the teachings and commandments of Jesus Christ, as explained in the article, “Faith Alone Is Not Faith,” linked just above.
Unfortunately, Protestants don’t see this, because they do not “direct their attention to these points” in reading Paul’s letters. Instead, they continually “direct their attention” to confirming their pre-existing belief in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. That is therefore all they see in the letters of Paul—and indeed, in the entire Bible.
But they are greatly mistaken in their reading and understanding of Paul, as the above-linked articles and many others here demonstrate in detail. Anyone whose eyes are not blinded by Luther’s doctrine can see very clearly in reading the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John that they teach the necessity both of believing in Jesus Christ and of doing good works for our fellow human beings as an integral part of our salvation and our spiritual rebirth.
That’s why it is a pity that many Swedenborgians don’t read the Epistles. If they did, they would find that these books of the Protestant Bible simply don’t say what Protestants say they do. Instead, they give the same teachings of faith and good works together that Swedenborg gave in his theological writings. And more importantly, they base their teaching on the two Great Commandments of loving God above all and loving our neighbor as ourselves, just as Jesus taught us to do in the Gospels.
However, to see this clearly, you need to understand the religious and cultural context in which Paul and the rest of the apostles wrote their letters. For this, I recommend that you read the two articles linked above, and the others linked at the end of each article.
Why did God allow these books to be in the Bible?
A common question asked of Swedenborgians is, “If the Acts and the Epistles aren’t part of the Word of God, why did God allow them to be included in the Christian Bible?”
There are two basic reasons for this.
The first one we’ve already covered. Since so much of the Gospels and the Book of Revelation are written in symbolic and metaphorical language, it was necessary to have books that explained the teachings of the Christian religion more clearly and directly. The Acts covers the early formation and development of the Christian community and its beliefs and practices. The Epistles provide much practical instruction on Christian faith and practice. Without them, it is doubtful that the Christian Church ever would have gotten off the ground. And if these books were not included in the common Christian Bible, most Christians today would pay no attention to them at all, or even know that they exist.
The second reason, according to Swedenborg, that God allowed the Epistles to be included in the Bible was to protect the books that are a part of the Word of God from being corrupted, or to use Swedenborg’s word, “profaned.”
You see, God knew that the Christian Church would fairly quickly fall away from its original love and zeal, and would descend into internal conflict, error, and corruption. This is predicted metaphorically right in the Gospels themselves, and in the Book of Revelation. For us, looking back on the history of Christianity over the last two thousand years, it is simply a matter of history. See: “Christianity is Dead. Long Live Christianity!” Or just read the sordid history of the bloody massacres and battles that “Christians” have waged throughout much of “Christian” history.
However, the Word of God is precious. It is the primary means by which God speaks to people of the Christian nations with the words of eternal life. The Gospels, especially, are the heart of God’s Word. That is where the Lord Jesus Christ himself gives us those words of eternal life. And these precious divine books had to be protected from the dirty and corrupt hands of the “Christian” theologians who would tear the church apart as it descended into error, conflict, and schism.
That is what the Epistles, especially the letters of Paul, have done for the Gospels.
If you read traditional Christian doctrinal tracts, especially evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant ones, you will find that almost all of the Bible quotes and references in them are from the letters of Paul. Very few of them are from the Gospels or from any of the other books of the Bible.
The teachings in those tracts are utterly false. But in promulgating their false teachings, the authors, and the “Christian” theologians that they look to, have largely confined themselves to distorting and destroying the meaning of Paul’s letters. They have mostly left intact the teachings of Jesus Christ himself in the Gospels. Jesus’ teachings, being more metaphorical, do not lend themselves to the type of doctrinal distortion that is so much easier to perpetrate on the more doctrinal writings of the apostles.
This is just one of the ways that the Lord’s teaching is far more powerful than that of the apostles. The words of Jesus Christ are the Word of God. And the Word of God is capable of cutting through all of the distortions that false “Christians” have heaped upon the Bible for so many centuries. No matter what the spiritually blind pastors and theologians say, the words of Jesus Christ are capable of reaching people of good heart and simple faith with the true light of Christian faith and life.
Ordinary Christian laypeople who want to live according to the teachings of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ can still read the Gospels and get the words of truth from the lips of Jesus Christ himself, without having them distorted and destroyed by centuries of false “Christian” doctrinal argumentation that has focused almost entirely upon a complete misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the letters of Paul.
The rehabilitation of Paul
Those old, false doctrines that distort the letters of Paul and obscure their true meaning are still rampant in today’s “Christianity,” especially in its Protestant branch. However, they are losing their hold on the population of the Christian parts of the world. More and more people, especially young people, are abandoning those old, harsh, corrupt doctrines. Unfortunately, many of them are so disgusted by the horrible, bloodthirsty god portrayed by traditional Christianity that they have abandoned Christianity altogether. (But see: “What about Violent Religions? Is God Really Bloodthirsty and Vengeful?”)
Now we can finally begin to rehabilitate the letters of Paul. Now we can rescue them from the hands of those “Christian” theologians who have twisted and distorted them for so long. Now we can begin to understand that Paul’s main argument when he was asserting that we are saved or justified by faith without the works of the Law was that Christians no longer need to be observant Jews in order to be saved by their faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Read Acts 15 for the whole story. And read some of the articles linked from this one to gain a fuller understanding.
Paul simply didn’t teach what many traditional Christians say he did. And if the Lord gives me enough years on this earth, I hope to pull together much of the material in the articles and discussions here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life into a commentary on Paul’s letters in order to rescue them from the hands of those who have twisted and destroyed them for so long.
Without the work of Paul, it is unlikely that the Christian Church would have survived and thrived as it did. Together with Peter, Barnabas, and other apostles who evangelized in Gentile areas, Paul was largely responsible for breaking Christianity out of the old Jewish model so that it could reach the masses of Gentiles (non-Jews, most of whom were pagan polytheists) who were seeking new spiritual life. And it was among the Gentiles that Christianity had its great growth and expansion.
Unfortunately, the broad-minded, expansive message of Paul has been progressively hemmed in until Paul is now seen by many ex-Christians as a narrow-minded bigot. That is a pity. It’s high time Paul was rescued from those “Christian” brigands who have kidnapped Paul and kept him locked up in their narrow doctrinal prison for so long.
The core books of scripture
Now let’s take one more look at Swedenborg’s canon. And since we’ve already covered his New Testament canon fairly heavily, we’ll focus more on his Old Testament canon.
In the Gospels, Jesus continually refers to “the Law and the Prophets,” or “Moses and the Prophets.” These are not just arbitrary words. They refer to two of the three divisions that are now recognized as forming the Hebrew Bible within Judaism: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.
The books now recognized as part of the Ketuvim, or “Writings,” are Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and the two books of Chronicles. However, the books of the Ketuvim had not yet been fully gathered together and canonized within Judaism at the time of Jesus.
But by Jesus’ time the Law and the Prophets—which are the rest of the books in the Old Testament of the Protestant Bible, were fully settled as canon within Judaism. Generally speaking, these are the books of the Old Testament that Jesus refers to and quotes from as Scripture.
Jesus also refers to Daniel as a prophet, thus including Daniel among the Prophets for Christians. And he quotes from the Psalms, establishing them also as “law” or scripture for Christians. Swedenborg followed Jesus’ lead in including these books as part of the Law and the Prophets. And he included Lamentations also, as an extension of the book of the prophet Jeremiah.
In other words, Swedenborg’s canon of the Old Testament contains the core books of the Hebrew Bible that Jesus himself referred to as scripture. After his resurrection, Jesus referred to these books as the ones that speak about him, and that he fulfilled during his lifetime on earth:
Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. . . . Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:27, 44)
And indeed, Swedenborg teaches that these books, which he includes in his canon of the Old Testament, do contain at their deepest level of meaning the full story of Jesus’ life and work here on earth, especially his battles against all the powers of evil in order to save us from their power, and the glorification of his humanity so that he could be “God with us.” (See: “What Does it Mean that Jesus was ‘Glorified’?”)
It is true that in a few places Jesus alludes to other books not in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, such as the book of Chronicles. But these are passing references, not ones he uses to establish his teachings on the firm foundation of the Word of God in the Hebrew Bible.
Swedenborg, then, was following the lead of the Lord Jesus Christ himself in his formation of the canon of the Old Testament as those books that Jesus said were about himself, and that he fulfilled.
And in the New Testament, as I said earlier, he included the Gospels, where the life and teachings of the Lord are given, and the book of Revelation, which is where we encounter the powerful presence of the risen and glorified Lord God Jesus Christ. Swedenborg saw these books as the “Law and Prophets” of the New Testament, the Gospels being the new and more spiritual “law” given by Jesus Christ, and Revelation being the prophetic section of the New Testament.
The rest of the books of the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Bibles provide historical background and doctrinal support and protection, like a matrix in which is the shining jewel of the inspired Word of God.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
For further reading: