One of the most important elements of Swedenborg’s theology is the principle that the Bible has an inner, spiritual meaning encoded within the text. He says that the Bible was never meant to be taken purely or even primarily in a literal sense, and he points out that the text is often confusing or even contradictory if taken literally. Rather, Swedenborg asserts, the Bible should be read as a multilayered description of the spiritual realities within us and in the world beyond.
Swedenborg describes the relationship between the literal and spiritual meanings of the Bible in his short work Sacred Scripture, where he describes the text of the Bible as a means to connect with deep spiritual truths:
It is characteristic of the Word’s style that there is something holy in every statement, even in every word, even at times in the letters themselves; so the Word unites us to the Lord and opens heaven.
There are two things that emanate from the Lord, divine love and divine wisdom . . . In its essence, the Word is both, and since, as already stated, it unites us with the Lord and opens heaven, the Word fills us with good desires that come from love and fills our understanding with truths that lead to wisdom, provided we read it with the help of the Lord and not just on our own. It fills our will with good desires that come from love and fills our understanding with truths that lead to wisdom. As a result, we gain life by means of the Word. (Sacred Scripture #3)
The Bible can be read on a literal level, Swedenborg says, and those teachings provide the foundation for understanding its inner meaning:
The first task [of those who seek enlightenment when they read the Word] is to put together a body of teaching for themselves from the literal meaning of the Word. That is how they light a lamp in order to go further. Once they have put together a body of teaching and lit the lamp, they see the Word in the light of that lamp. (Sacred Scripture #59)
However, at the same time the text can be interpreted using a system of correspondences that reveal the spiritual meanings behind the words. For example, Swedenborg tells us that the story of Creation at the beginning of Genesis is actually the story of our creation as spiritual people—that is, it’s the story of how we can go from being completely focused on ourselves and the world around us to being caring people who manifest God’s love and wisdom as much and as often as we can. (For more about this, see our page on regeneration or read this passage in Swedenborg’s own words.)
In his first theological work, Secrets of Heaven, Swedenborg sets out to demonstrate exactly how this system works by going through the Bible verse by verse, sometimes word by word, and explaining the spiritual correspondence behind what is written there. In eight Latin volumes (twelve or fifteen volumes in English translation), he gets as far as the end of Exodus. He seems originally to have intended to eventually go through the entire Bible, but the only other book that he examines at that level of detail is the book of Revelation.
Swedenborg’s reading of the inner sense of the Bible was the foundation of his own theology, and it provided the inspiration for his view of the Lord and a unique model of spiritual growth or regeneration.