Saturday, July 18, 2015

Swedenborg, the Ultimate "Cosmic" Theologian

In the future look for me to say much more on Emanuel Swedenborg. When one learns about his ideas, one might be tempted to write him off as a crank. Well, he was very smart; I've seen estimates of his IQ at the 200 level. I know that doesn't demonstrate he wasn't a crank as a lot of brilliant people are crazy. Indeed, Swedenborg's testimony led folks to question his sanity.

Whatever Swedenborg's legacy we don't write off Immanuel Kant (another really smart fellow). And Kant -- the man who coined the term "Enlightenment" -- took Swedenborg's ideas very seriously. He seemed obsessed and fascinated with them, and had a love hate relationship with them.

While Swedenborg's theology is extremely complex, I will try to simplify it in a nutshell: He was a self understood "Christian," coming from the Lutheran tradition, who believed in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments. He believed the "Father, Son & Holy Spirit" were equally divine, but different modes of one God. Thus, he wasn't an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, but a modalist.

He also rejected Sola Fide, and like the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and others, believed in justification through some mysterious process of faith, grace and works. 

Oh, and he also claimed to have visited the afterlife and described what it's like there. Indeed in vivid detail. And that testimony, as far as I can tell, is taken by his followers to have divine revelatory authority along the lines of the Old and New Testament. That's obviously where his ideas cause controversy.

On salvation, Swedenborg was not technically a universalist, but perhaps could be termed a "modified universalist." On a personal note, I don't just reject the notion of Hell as described by Jonathan Edwards in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" as false, but, as a doctrine, I believe it as pernicious as the worst of what radical Islam offers.

On the days I am a believer, I consider myself a "universalist." But as a believer, I still hold to the doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments.

It's either "Heaven or Hell," one of the other -- one thing perfectly awesome, the other, worst than the worst someone can experience on Earth (like the Holocaust) forever. This strikes me as not only an overly simplistic false dichotomy, but as mentioned above,  renders such idea of Hell no more respectable than the theology that motivated those 19 hijackers to do what they did on 9/11/2001.

But that doesn't invalidate the concept of future punishment,  Hell, what have you. We want folks punished in the future for the bad they do to others. Hitler, Stalin, serial killers? Yes. (And even them, no, not forever.) But the Jews who simply didn't accept Jesus as savior but committed ordinary sins like lusting for someone who isn't your spouse or stealing a candy bar from the lunch room? And Hell is worse than the holocaust, but for eternity?

This is crazy (in my opinion), something which I could never believe in or respect. It's, again, as an idea, in Mohammed Attaville.

But Swedenborg didn't see Hell that way. Rather he saw it in a way that I independently, doing a thought experiment, concluded was just (as much as I despise the above mentioned notion of Hell). It has to do with Aristotle's notion of Eudaimonia; or as George Washington put it,
There is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, ...
In other words, Hell for the unsaved is like Ground Hog Day. In fact, Heaven and Hell may be the same place! Being in God's Presence for all eternity with His rules. Follow them, and you'll be happy. Break them, and you won't. Do as much smoking, drugging, gaming, hedonistic pleasure pursuing and conniving you want and see how happy it gets you.

That's more or less the notion of Hell I get from Swedenborg. As CS Lewis put it, the doors of Hell are locked from the inside. And no wonder so many folks would choose to stay there for so long, perhaps forever.

Recently, for the first time in my life I attended a funeral at a Swedenborgian Church.  There were the traditional citing of verses and chapters of scripture and singing of traditional hymns like "Amazing Grace." But the minister then cited Swedenborg's writings as seemingly something on par with the Old and New Testament.

It was a very nice sermon, and pleasant, peaceful experience for me.

As it relates to my interest in the American Founding, 1. George Washington wrote the "New Church" (Swedenborgian) and let them know whatever rights the US Constitution grants to "religion" the Swedenborgs were equally entitled to them. And 2. Thomas Jefferson, as President in a context when ministers were invited to preach to the newly formed Federal Government, invited John Hargrove to preach the doctrines of Swedenborg to Congress.

[No, Jefferson was not a secret Swedenborgian. Rather, I think his motive was, if I have to sit through sermons that preach doctrines in which I don't believe, you people should have to do the same. Open your minds a little.]

But let's finally get to the "cosmic" nature of Swedenborg's ideas. He like a lot of the "Christian" figures in the 18th Century pondered the newly understood nature of the stars and universe and concluded such were teaming with intelligent life. Aliens? Angels? Spiritual beings in the cosmos that may have material form? What's the difference?

Consider what Swedenborg wrote when discussing his experiences with the "the spirits of the earth Mercury":
I was desirous to know what kind of face and body the men in the earth Mercury had, whether they were like the men on our earth; instantly there was presented before my eyes a woman exactly resembling the women in that earth; she had a beautiful face, but it was smaller than that of a woman of our earth; her body also was more slender, but her height was equal; she wore on her head a linen cap, which was put on without art, but yet in a manner becoming. A man also was presented to view, who was more slender in body than the men of our earth are; he was clad in a garment of a dark blue color, closely fitted to his body, without any foldings or protuberances: it was given to understand, that such was the form of body, and such the dress of the men of that earth....
 Sounds to me like Swedenborg met himself some Nordic Whites


Bill Fortenberry said...

Jon, do you know where I can find a publicly accessible digital copy of Hargrove's "The Substance of a Sermon on the Leading Doctrines of the New Jerusalem Church"? I found it at Villanova at this link:

but I don't have access to Villanova's online library.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I assume what's below isn't what you are looking for. This is what is reproduced in the Sandoz collection and thus available online in a number of different places. If I find the one for which you ask, I'll inform you.

Bill Fortenberry said...

That one is Hargrove's second sermon before Congress in 1804. I'm trying to find the first one from 1802.

Bill Fortenberry said...

A friend of mine just sent me a copy of the first sermon, and I have uploaded it to the internet archive. You can get the pdf at:

Hargrove included an introduction explaining how he came to preach this sermon at the capitol, and his account does not agree with those I have found on the web which attribute Hargrove's invitation to President Jefferson. According to Hargrove, he was invited by Dr. Gante, the chaplain of the Senate.

After reading the sermon, I have to say that I would not consider the New Jerusalem Church to be a Christian denomination since they reject the teaching of the atonement of Christ. As I pointed out in my article "The Minimalist Messiah," a belief in the doctrine of the atonement can be demonstrated to be the historical minimum required for one to be a Christian.

It is interesting to note, however, that the New Jerusalem Church accepted the deity of Christ even though they were Unitarians.

Anonymous said...

@Bill Fortenberry,

Thank you for posting a copy of the Rev. John Hargrove's first (1802) sermon preached before Congress. It is a fascinating read. Mr. Hargrove certainly does not pull his punches!

About the theory of atonement rejected by the New Jerusalem Church, in his Sermon Hargrove describes it thus:

"2ndly. As nearly allied to this, as a child to its parent, is the modern doctrine of the atonement, which teaches us, that in order to satisfy the claims of the divine law, which man had broken, Jesus Christ died--thereby rendering his father propitious, and reconciling him to sinners!"

In other words, Hargrove is referring to the general Satisfaction Theory of Atonement. Hargrove advisedly calls it a "modern doctrine," probably referring more specifically to its Protestant version.

The overall Satisfaction Theory of Atonement did not exist during the first 1,000 years of the Christian Church. It was originated by Anselm of Canterbury, and proposed in his book Cur Deus Homo, published toward the end of the 11th century.

The version of Satisfaction Theory now accepted in the Catholic Church was developed by Thomas Aquinas based on Anselm's theory, and published in his Summa Theologica in the mid-13th century.

The version of Satisfaction Theory widely accepted in Protestantism, known as Penal Substitution, originated with the early Protestant Reformers in the 16th century--though it is somewhat difficult to pin down precisely which Protestant theologian first developed it.

All of this is a matter of church history.

The atonement theory that Hargrove and the New Jerusalem Church reject, then, cannot possibly be a "historical minimum required for one to be a Christian." This would mean that historically, there were no Christians at all, rightly so-called, prior to Anselm in the 11th century--which is obviously absurd.

I should also add that the New Jerusalem Church is not a "unitarian" church as that term is usually used. However, that would be a whole new subject, and this is enough for now.

Anonymous said...

One correction to the main article:

Swedenborg was not, in fact, a modalist, despite that doctrine being sometimes attributed to him by traditional Christians. He explicitly rejected Sabellianism as a heresy, among many other heresies, in True Christianity #378.

Though Swedenborg rejected the Nicene/Athanasian Trinity of Persons, considering it unbiblical and false, his version of the Trinity did not, as the modalist Trinity does, consider Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be various "modes" of a single God, or different ways that a single God appears to humans. Rather, Swedenborg saw Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as "essential components" (Latin: essentialia) of a single Person of God, equivalent to the soul, body, and actions of human beings--whom, according to Genesis 1:26-27, God created "in the image and likeness of God."

For more on the difference between Swedenborg's Trinity and the modalistic (Sabellian) view, please see my article, "What is the difference between the Swedenborgian and Oneness Pentecostal doctrines of God?"