NCE Minute: The Three Pillars of Heaven: Understanding the Themes of The Shorter Works of 1763

The year 2019 will see the publication of the New Century Edition’s second deluxe compendium of Swedenborg’s shorter works. The first such volume was The Shorter Works of 1758; the forthcoming volume will contain the five short works Swedenborg originally published in 1763: The Lord, Sacred Scripture, LifeFaith, and Supplements, complete with preface, introduction, annotations, and indexes.

The first four of these books are concerned with vital topics, as Swedenborg’s later summary of them in Revelation Unveiled shows:

There are four sets of teachings that are now in print—one on the Lord, the second on Sacred Scripture, the third on living by the commandments of the Decalogue, and the fourth on faith—which may establish the following: that the Word has now been opened and that it bears witness to the fact that the Lord alone is God of heaven and earth, that we are to live by his commandments, and that the faith of the present day needs to be dismissed. (Revelation Unveiled §668)

Why did Swedenborg choose to focus on these specific subjects? We can begin to understand the reason by looking at another passage, Divine Providence §259:3, which identifies “three essential principles of the church” as “belief in the divine nature of the Lord, belief in the holiness of the Word, and the [way of] life that we call ‘charity.’” So the Lord, Sacred Scripture, and the caring life are not just three topics chosen at random from the bulging warehouse of Christian theology; they are its “three essential principles.”

Then what about Faith, the last of the first four of our titles? In a sense, it’s a negative version of the same argument that Swedenborg pursues in his book about life. We might even refer to the two books together as Life/Faith. Most Protestant doctrine holds that all we have to do to win an eternal life in heaven is to have faith. But Swedenborg insists that it’s not enough to just believe, even if what we believe is true—even if it is the greatest of all truths. Our faith must be accompanied by the performance of caring acts: “Believing in the Lord is not simply thinking that he exists but is also doing what he says” (Life §48, emphasis added). If we do not practice good, then “the evil we practice destroys the truth we believe” (Life §44). What Swedenborg has done with Life and Faith is like first writing a book about how to plant and care for a tree, and then writing a book about how to avoid falling into the errors tree-planters commonly make. His message is summed up in the first sentence of the closing chapter of Faith:

A faith divorced from caring is no faith at all, because caring is the life of faith, its soul, its essence; and where there is no faith because there is no caring, there is no church. (Faith §69)

Swedenborg always lists these four books in order of the importance of their various themes: first the Lord, then the Lord’s Word, and then the way we are to live (or not to live). All four are based on Scripture, but it is noteworthy, given Swedenborg’s usual focus on inner meaning, that the biblical passages cited so exhaustively in these titles are meant to be understood literally. Even in Sacred Scripture, where his intent is to demonstrate the presence and use of spiritual meaning in the Bible, chapters 3–6 (§§27–69) insist on the fundamental importance of the literal meaning.

These four works are clearly addressed to readers who take the Bible seriously and who understand it literally. So despite the topical order in which they are commonly listed, we might well read Sacred Scripture first and regard The Lord and Life as carrying out the policy that it advocates—drawing the church’s teachings from the literal meaning of the Word (Sacred Scripture §53). And if you look back to the passage from Revelation Unveiled quoted previously, you’ll see that Swedenborg himself does that very thing: he starts his description of the themes of these works by saying, “The Word has now been opened and . . . bears witness to the fact that . . .”

What about the fifth and final book in The Shorter Works of 1763? It consists of two supplements to works from 1758: one that continues Last Judgment and another that continues Heaven and Hell. Taken together, these supplements are like a rousing and colorful scherzo played by a great violinist as an encore to a weighty and dramatic concerto in four movements. Yet the great themes of The Lord, Sacred Scripture, and Life/Faith are heard repeatedly in this encore. In Supplements §88, for example, Swedenborg criticizes a sect in the spiritual world for three errors that fall into now-familiar categories: holding a heretical view of the Lord, despising Sacred Scripture, and hating a life built on caring.

Truly, as Swedenborg says in that Supplements passage, the truths about these central topics form “the three pillars on which all heaven rests.”

 

This article was adapted from the preface to The Shorter Works of 1763 with the gracious consent of the author, George F. Dole. Some additions were made to the content. This article will also be printed in the Winter 2018/2019 Swedenborg Foundation newsletter.

 

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