Rev. Thom Muller
A Disclamer: Taking the Old Swede with a Grain of Salt
This segment, as well as the next one, which will explore Swedenborg and Roman Catholicism, needs an important disclaimer. These are difficult passages to consider, and often problematic. They speak to a more general problem which readers of Swedenborg encounter, which is his seemingly generalizing and uncompassionate statements about certain traditions, movements, and groups of people. Without excusing such language and reasoning, it is important to bear in mind that this kind of discourse was very common in the 18th century, including in theological circles. This applies both to Swedenborg’s antisemitic statements as well as his generalizations about Christian sects. While difficult, I find an engagement with these passages extremely important, as we wrestle with the problematic content, hopefully with a combination of skepticism, critique, nuance and compassion.
Secondly, it needs to be pointed out that the Swedenborgian Church has been deeply involved in ecumenical efforts, and has cultivated and maintained an extremely positive and collaborative relationship with many Protestant denominations, including but not limited to fellow members of the National Council of Churches. Our seminary in Berkeley, California is an excellent example of this, having operated within an ecumenical context for several decades. The views expressed by Swedenborg do not necessarily represent those of the Swedenborgian Church or its members, who have a diversity of theological approaches.
What is Protestantism?
The term “Protestantism” tends to be used more ambiguously in a modern popular North American context than it would be in theological or religious studies circles. A common way some use the term is to describe any Christian sect or movement which originated subsequently to, and was in some way influenced by, the Protestant Reformation. Colloquially, then, many Americans will refer to Mormonism, New Thought, Christian Science, Anthroposophy and Swedenborgianism as “Protestant”. Theologically speaking, this is incorrect. While there is not a single post-reformation sect or doctrinal movement within Western Christianity, including Catholicism, which has not been deeply affected by the Reformation and consequent Protestant discourse, there are some fundamental theological assertions which are traditionally understood to be inseparable from Protestant doctrine.
Perhaps the most foundational and most frequently cited articulation of essential Protestant teaching are the “Five Solae”. They are generally understood by Protestants, including both Lutherans and the Reformed/Calvinists as an accurate reflection of the basic tenets of Protestantism as articulated by the early reformers, and adhered to, to this day, by Protestant Christians. The “Five Solae” are as follows: scripture alone (sola scriptura), faith alone (sola fide), grace alone (sola gratia), Christ alone (solus Christus), and glory to God alone (soli Deo gloria).
While, at first sight, these assertions lend themselves to a variety of interpretations, many of which may be quite uncontroversial to non-Protestant Christians, there are specific theological concepts which are traditionally explicitly associated with them. Swedenborg vehemently rejected each of these, provoking the ire of the Lutheran religious establishment which dominated Swedish culture and government at his day. This is a primary reason for his needing to “escape” to publish his works in more liberal minded locations such as Amsterdam and London.
Paul – The Hellish Apostle?
Swedenborg did not view the “New Church” as a continuation or reformation of the established forms of Christianity, the “Old Christian Church” having all but died as a spiritual era. Rather, he stresses the original, pre-Pauline, inner teachings of Christ, now manifest in greater depth in his spiritual second coming. The Pauline piece is an incredibly important subject to address when engaging the issue of Swedenborgianism’s relationship to historical, established Christianity. Much of mainline Christianity’s conceptionalizations of its history, institutions, lineage and identity is firmly based on Paul’s writings. While the Gospels and Book of Revelation (the only 5 books of the New Testament Swedenborg acknowledges as being part of “the Word” are void of concrete instructions for a post-Christ Christian community. Paul’s writings, on the other hand, lay out a new framework of both doctrine and ecclesiastical organization, and both Catholic and Protestant theology relies heavily on the Pauline texts as religious authority and foundation of the “Christian Church”.
Swedenborg goes so far as asserting that Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle who never met Jesus and perverted his teachings, now dwells as an evil spirit in hell, where he continues to lead others astray:
“There was a certain one who had no feeling for the inner meaning of the Word, because he wanted to place merit in deeds (Paul). For a long time he was at a distance from me, also among worse spirits. Now he allied himself with the worst devils, now he wanted to form a heaven for himself [of spirits] to whom he would give joy from his own power – but one of passions and enjoyments which he indeed attempted to do, but it only made him worse, and upset. I spoke with him then, saying that this was not a heaven, but a hell, and it was turned into a black hell.” –Spiritual Experiences §4321
“About Paul: For a long time he had been in front, a little toward the right, and it was shown him that he might enjoy blessedness, but constantly, whenever he had the opportunity, he spoke against the truths of faith. Finally a certain spirit in a higher place was discovered, who claimed that he had led him. Engaged in conversation, he spoke quite confidently of himself as the one who had controlled him, and had ruled everything about him, professing himself to be as a god, even breathing out an aura as if he were the Lord. But he was a certain devil who imagined he was the very devil who had deceived Adam and Eve, according to the common opinion.
He was sent into hell, into its caverns, where he wandered through until he was right under my feet, and finally he came up, veiled in a cloud, which was his fantasy. Then Paul spoke with him, which it was granted me to hear, saying that he wanted him as a companion, and to go with him, and make him a god.
 So indeed they became companions, and went forward quite far, and tried to trick those who were there, but they were rejected wherever they went […] Hence it became known to all that Paul too is of that wicked character, and that he has been tolerated hitherto for certain reasons, for he underwent the punishment of a wicked spirit on account of his wicked deeds.” –Spiritual Experiences §4321
Interestingly, Swedenborg would later quote Pauls epistles in his publishes theological works. However, this is primarily found in his apologetic work “True Christianity”, intended as a defense against charges of heresy from Sweden’s Lutheran state church.
Swedenborg’s theological critique of Protestant theology centers around a number of distinctly Protestant teachings which Swedenborg not only rejects but deems spiritually detrimental. He focusses much of his criticism on the concepts of “faith alone”, presdestination, Trinitarianism (or rather Tripersonalism) as well the Christological belief in vicarious atonement, the notion of Christ’s life and sacrifice as a vicarious ransom for human sin, which requires the explicit confession of the same. These beliefs stem in part from the Protestant rejection of “salvation by works”, and is directly tied to sola fide, sola gratia, and solus Christus. While absolutely essential and foundational to Protestant theology, the concept of vicarious atonement, and the exclusive necessity of confessional faith as opposed to spiritual regeneration through active works of charity, are absent from Swedenborgian theology. What’s more, Swedenborg not only rejects them, but regards them as fundamentally harmful and contrary to the regenerative path:
“The belief that the passion of the cross was redemption itself is the fundamental error of the church; and this error, together with the error respecting three Divine persons from eternity, has perverted the whole church to such an extent that there is nothing spiritual left in it.” -TCR §132
“The present day Church has separated faith from charity by declaring that faith alone, without the works of the law, justifies and saves; and also, that charity cannot be united with faith, because faith is from God, while charity, so far as it finds expression in works, is from man. That the Church would adopt such a position never entered the mind of any of the apostles.” -TCR §355
The “Great Fiery Red Dragon”?
“The faith and imputation of the New Church cannot exist together with the faith and imputation of the former or still-existing church because they do not agree in one-third part, not even in one-tenth part.”* -TCR §647
Swedenborg’s rebuttal of Protestantism reaches its peak in his esoteric eschatology, specifically his interpretation of the apocalyptic symbolism of the Book of Revelation. Believing the fantastical apocalyptic images in this part of scripture to correspond to, among other things, collective spiritual dynamics unfolding during his own lifetime, perhaps most famously claiming that the Second Coming of Christ was already occurring in the form of the unfolding of a new age, the New Church, or New Christian Church succeeding the previous on, the “old” Christian Church. In Apocalypse Revealed, he elaborates on the meaning of two well known images contained in the Book of Revelation, which he associates directly with Protestantism.
The first is the “dragon”, one of the primary antagonistic characters of the BoR (attempting to snatch the Woman Clothed with the Sun, aka the New Church):
“‘Behold, a great, fiery red dragon.’ This symbolizes people in the Protestant Reformed Church who make God three entities and the Lord two, and who divorce charity from faith, making faith saving and not at the same time charity. These are the people meant by the dragon here and in the following verses. For they are antagonistic to the two essential elements of the New Church, namely, that God is one in essence and person, in whom is the Trinity, and that that God is the Lord. […]
Now because these two fundamental doctrinal tenets in the Protestant Reformed churches are false, and falsities destroy the church, inasmuch as they take away its truths and goods, therefore they were represented by the dragon. That is because a dragon in the Word symbolizes the destruction of the church.”** -Apocalypse Revealed §537
Further, to Swedenborg, the “mark of the beast” (Revelation 13) represents the doctrine of sola fide:
“‘To have the mark of the beast’ means, symbolically, to acknowledge faith alone, to affirm it in oneself, and to live in accordance with it. And to worship its image means, symbolically, to accept the doctrine teaching it.To live in accordance with faith alone and to accept its doctrine means to attach no importance to living for the sake of salvation, and to attach no importance to the truth.” -Apocalypse Revealed §679
Swedenborg adds his unique flavor to the discussion by recounting conversations and debates had with the spirits of Luther and Calvin, among other reformers. His discussions with Luther are contentious, but ultimately he succeeds at slowly convincing the German reformer to reconsider and ultimately recant his previous theological positions.
Calvin’s spirit, on the other hand, whose discussion with Swedenborg centers around the Calvinist belief in predestination and the nature of God, maintains a “hellish” state of pride and falsity. Upon one heated conversation, Swedenborg uses strong words to repudiate him:
“What you say is wicked; evil spirit, away with you. Being in the spiritual world, do you not know that there is a heaven and a hell, and that predestination implies that some people are assigned to heaven and some to hell? In this way you cannot form any other idea of God than of a tyrant, who admits his supporters into the city and sends the rest to be slaughtered. You should be ashamed of yourself.” –True Christianity §798
Swedenborg sums up the fate of the Reformers and their followers in the afterlife as follows, Luther being represented by the former, and Calvin by the latter state:
“I spoke with many followers of [Luther, Melanchton and Calvin] and also with many heretics. I was allowed to draw the conclusion that any of them who had led a life of charity, and more so those who had loved truth because it is true, allow themselves to be taught in the spiritual world, and accept the teachings of the new church. Those, however, who have convinced themselves of false religious beliefs, and those too who have led a wicked life, do not allow themselves to be taught, and these withdraw little by little from the new heaven, and associate with the people like themselves who are in hell.”
One can’t help but notice a bit of arrogance in Swedenborg’s writing here. In addition to this, there is a definite “strawman” element to his reasoning. He over-simplifies and generalizes other theologians’ views in his own bias, and then repudiates them based on his own, often somewhat distorted premise. His claim and recounting of his supposed conversations with the deceased Reformers even amplifies this. In other words, Swedenborg’s interpretation and depiction of Protestantism do not do justice to the depth and variety of its thought and practice of his day. Even more importantly, they most certainly do not do justice to modern Protestantism, which has undergone countless evolutions and developments to the present day.
While his arguments do apply somewhat to what one may call “Protestant fundamentalism”, as present in the Evangelical and Traditionalist Reformed churches, among others, it quite simply does not apply to the contemporary Protestant milieu, especially its more “mainline” and “progressive” branches. I personally recall my time at Pacific School of Religion, a progressive, multi-denominational and historically Protestant seminary, at which I earned my Master’s of Divinity degree along with completing the Certificate of Swedenborgian Studies at the Center for Swedenborgian Studies (then called the Swedenborgian House of Studies). In my deep and long-time engagement with liberal Mainline Protestantism, I have not once encountered a theological framework or approach to which Swedenborg’s critiques truly apply. Protestant theology, especially in the 19th and 20th and centuries, has not only challenged, but re-articulated and re-engaged its historical tenets in ways which I believe would actually please the Old Swede. Many of my Protestant friends, while firmly rooted in their own theology, have in fact expressed how much they resonate with his critiques of established 18th century European Protestant dogmatism.
A Spiritual Theater of Ideas?
Yet, there is another, perhaps deeper level to his writing, which strikes me as especially relevant and profound. Swedenborg is very clear that the encounters and images he experienced in the spiritual world were correspondential to more inner realities. In other words, concepts, emotions and states are represented by objects, colors, sounds, fragrances, stories, and people, including historical figures. In Heaven and Hell, he recounts the process by which external states and ideas, including intellectual and theological ones, are represented by particular individuals, sometimes actually portrayed by “actors” in a kind of “heavenly play” designed as a kind of teaching method to those receptive to learning higher/inner truths:
“[…] if they have worshiped some god in the form of an image or statue or idol, they are introduced to people who take on the roles of those gods or idols in order to help rid them of their illusions. After they have been with these people for a few days, they are taken away. If they have worshiped particular individuals, then they are introduced either to those people themselves or to individuals who play their parts […] When they realize that they are just as human as anyone else and that they have nothing special to offer them, they are embarrassed, and are taken off to whatever place is in keeping with their lives.” -Heaven and Hell §326
Could it be that, rather than definitive and generalizing statements about other individuals or groups of people, these passages are primarily Swedenborg’s own engagement with his inner self, concepts which he soaked up and needed to confront as a means of articulating, to himself and others, the radically new teachings of the New Church? In other words, rather than speaking with the literal spirits of Luther or Calvin, perhaps Swedenborg was exposed to his own kind of “divine play”, in which “spiritual actors” visually and auditorily presented elements of his own intellect, the “Luther within”, so to speak? A way to expose, engage, and clarify certain ideas?
This opens a more general subject which I have found elemental to my own reading of the Writings: The communication of universal realities by subjective means. I personally believe that Swedenborg did, in fact, have the experiences he purported to have. This includes his journeys to heaven and hell, his encounters and discussions with countless individuals there, and even his visits to other planets, including conversing with “moon spirits”, and yes, with Luther, Melanchton and Calvin (as well as plenty of other celebrities, including ancient philosophers and biblical characters). These images and narratives can become deeply problematic when we close our understanding to their inner relevance, focussing on time-and-space-bound concepts and rather than the deeper spiritual realities they represent. We Swedenborgians have often become “idolators” of the external sense of the Writings, falling into a trap very much associated with the “Old Christian Church” and its scriptural literalism.
I’d like to posit that Swedenborg’s engagement with Protestantism and its figures and ideas are primarily a reflection of Swedenborg, not of Protestantism. They are illustrations of an inner wrestling with theological concepts, and that is what makes them profound and deeply relevant. I believe we do neither Protestants NOR Swedenborg justice by interpreting his mystical experiences through the lens of literalism and a consequent promulgation of the very bias and dogmatism the age of the New Church is slowly but surely helping us transcend by means of a beautiful, albeit challenging “divine play”, which points us to our own spiritual self, rather than pointing our finger at that of others.
What Really Matters
To balance out the somewhat stern and doctrinal tone of some of the previously cited passages from the Writings, I’d like to conclude this part of my reflection with the following passage from Secrets of Heaven, which I understand as an explicit and enthusiastic call to ecumenism:
“In the Christian world it is their doctrines that cause Churches to be distinct and separate, and because of these they call themselves Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists or the Reformed, and Evangelicals, among other names. It is solely by reason of their doctrines that they are called by these names. This situation would never exist if they were to make love to the Lord and charity towards the neighbour the chief thing of faith. In this case their doctrinal differences would be no more than shades of opinion concerning the mysteries of faith which truly Christian people would leave to individual conscience, and in their hearts would say that a person is truly a Christian when he lives as a Christian, that is, as the Lord teaches. If this were so all the different Churches would become one, and all the disagreements which stem from doctrine alone would disappear. Indeed the hatred one man holds against another would be dispelled in an instant, and the Lord’s kingdom on earth would come.”*** -Secrets of Heaven §1799
*Swedenborg, Emanuel. True Christianity. Translated by Jonathan S. Rose. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
**Swedenborg, Emanuel. Apocalypse Revealed. Translated by John Whitehead. London: Swedenborg Society, 1940.
***Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia. Translated by John Elliott. London: Swedenborg Society, 1990.
Rev. Thom Muller is pastor at Hillside, an Urban Sanctuary/Hillside Swedenborgian Church in El Cerrito, California, as well as co-editor of Our Daily Bread. His passions include the intersection of religion and psychology, interfaith spirituality, comparative Mysticism, and the Western esoteric tradition. He was ordained into the ministry of the Swedenborgian Church of North America in 2016, upon receiving his theological education at Bryn Athyn College of the New Church and the Center for Swedenborgian Studies / Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.