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Which of Swedenborg's Books are Divine Revelation?

Swedenborg stated in five different places the basic mission the Lord commanded him to do: "Since it has been given me by the Lord to see the wonderful things which are in the heavens and below the heavens, I must, from command, relate what has been seen." (Apocalypse Revealed 962, Brief Exposition 120, True Christian Religion 188) ..."[I]t has pleased the Lord to manifest Himself to me and to send me to teach the things which shall be of the New Church, meant by the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse." (Married Love 1). More specifically, he wrote that, “Since the Lord cannot manifest Himself in Person, .… and nevertheless has foretold that He was to come and establish a new church, which is the New Jerusalem, it follows that He will do this by means of a man, who is able not only to receive these doctrines in his understanding but also to publish them by the press.” (True Christian Religion VIII, 779). This latter statement appears to clearly specify that only the works that Swedenborg himself published are fully authoritative Divine revelation, and this was the position taken by a major translator of Swedenborg's work, John Faulkner Potts,[1,2] who compiled the massive Swedenborg Concordance. As noted on p. viii, the Concordance reflects this distinction by inserting a dash between text from the published works and text from the unpublished work for a given section.  ( For a complete list of Swedenborg's theological works, indicating which he published, click here. For a list of those he did not publish, click here.)  However, since it has sometimes been proposed  that all Swedenborg's theological writings should be considered as authoritative revelation, it seems useful to briefly review this matter.  It should be noted at the outset that, although Swedenborg didn't publish the unpublished works, other people did after his death.  Thus, the unpublished works are sometimes referred to as the posthumous works.  

1. Are there reasons to question the authority of the unpublished works?

a) Simple logic suggests that, if Jesus has infinite wisdom, then He knows just exactly what we need in the way of revelation.  Furthermore, in that revelation is more truth than any of us could absorb in a lifetime.  So what justification could there possibly be for trying to add more material, especially if in deciding to do this we usurp Jesus' role of defining what is full revelation - a spiritually hazardous undertaking?!

b) Ethically, how legitimate is it to publish material Swedenborg chose not to and then call it full revelation into the bargain?  If someone were to obtain some of your private notes and published them to the world without your permission, and in addition said those notes represented what you thought, would you consider that ethical?  And what would be the point of making such a publication in the first place since, in the eyes of a person reading something published under those conditions, the notes would have no credibility? 

c) A central argument that has been made in defense of the unpublished work as authoritative is that Swedenborg wrote in Apocalypse Explained 1183 that "What has come from the Lord has been written, and what has come from angels has not been written" and similar statements in Spiritual Diary/Spiritual Experiences 1647 and 4034.  However, since Apocalypse Explained and Spiritual Diary/Spiritual Experiences are unpublished works, the authority of these statements is open to question.  (The nearly finished status of the Apocalypse Explained  has been proposed as a demonstration of its authoritative nature.  However, the reverse logic could just as easily be proposed - the fact that work on it was halted when it was so near completion could be seen as a fairly dramatic statement that it was not to be part of the revealed work. Rev. Frank Rose points out, however, that there were indications of Swedenborg's doubts about publishing it well before he stopped work on it. For instance, unlike Arcana Coelestia, he did not publish it serially as he went along. (F.S. Rose, "Swedenborg's Manuscripts," in  J.S. Rose (ed.) Emanuel Swedenborg. Essays for the New Century Edition on His Life, Work and Impact. Swedenborg Foundation: West Chester, 2005, pp.136-7))  Furthermore, despite the fact that Apocalypse Explained was written prior to Apocalypse Revealed, and on the same subject and six volumes long, Apocalypse Explained  is never mentioned in Apocalypse Revealed.  Indeed, Apocalypse Explained is cited nowhere in the published works.  (It is listed in the published works by search engines a few times, but these citations are only by the translator on word usage.)

d) Unlike the easily specified published works, the unpublished works are a mess. As Rev. Dr. Jonathan Rose, a translator of the Writings,  points out,

"... the posthumous works are all incomplete or organizationally flawed in one way or another. The reader of the manuscripts is constantly reminded that he or she is dealing with a work in progress, often full of scratchings out, sometimes with whole changes in method and direction. The posthumous works generally lack titles and their beginnings and endings are sometimes hard to locate. The difference between reading a manuscript and a first edition is strikingly obvious.

"This distinction is all but lost on the English readers of the existing standard edition. Although some posthumous works are gathered in a two-volume set with the title Posthumous Theological Works, and the word posthumous appears in miniscule type on the title page of Apocalypse Explained, the reader can easily forget the distinction. The posthumous works have been edited and transcribed, translated and published in books with exactly the same typeface, font, size, leading, margins, type and color of binding as the published works. Sometimes published and posthumous works have been bound together in the same volume, with perhaps a word or two buried in a preface to signal the reader of the distinction. This did not begin with English publication. Within a mere decade of Swedenborg's death Hindmarsh used the same printing houses, the same font, typeface, margins and leading to publish posthumous works like the Hieroglyphic Key and bind them in the same volume with a first edition. This has caused confusion about what was published and what was not even for people as educated as previous Swedenborgiana librarians, who placed such volumes beside genuine first editions."

- J.S. Rose, Boundaries, Looks and Style: Overlooked Aspects of Faithful Translation. Studia Swedenborgiana, May 1994 (for further details, see  J.S. Rose, "Annotated Bibliography of Swedenborg's Writings," in J.S. Rose (ed.) Emanuel Swedenborg. Essays for the New Century Edition on His Life, Work and Impact. Swedenborg Foundation: West Chester, 2005, pp. 385ff.)

See also a brief summary by Rev. Frank Rose on the difficulty of even coming up with a clearly defined list of the unpublished work ("The Writings" (letter) New Church Life October 1968 ), and a more extended treatment by him, including commentary on the ragged state of, most notably, Spiritual Experiences, in "Swedenborg's Manuscripts," in  J.S. Rose (ed.) Emanuel Swedenborg. Essays for the New Century Edition on His Life, Work and Impact. Swedenborg Foundation: West Chester, 2005, pp.117ff.  Rose also points out that,

"we can be satisfied that we have all of the material that Swedenborg completed with the intention of publishing," while "the...unpublished manuscripts are to be used with caution.  The originals of some of them have been lost, leaving us to rely on imperfect copies. In the autograph versions many pages are almost undecipherable.  Furthermore, some contain ideas that Swedenborg omitted from the published works, possibly because he felt led to do so." (ibid. pp.147-8)

One major problem with proposing such a messy collection of work as authoritative revelation is that  it makes God look disorganized, requiring readers of  His revelation to dig through a collection of material that ranges from the confusing to the simply unreadable.  More critically, the reader is forced to second guess what exactly God was trying to say in this material, which treads perilously along the edge of people, rather than God, determining the content of revelation.  It also seems a curious way, to say the least, for God to communicate definitive revelation.

2.   An alternative hypothesis

There would appear to be a simple alternative explanation of the status of the unpublished work, suggested by another famous statement of Swedenborg's:

“From my fourth to my tenth year I was constantly engaged in thought upon God, salvation, and the spiritual diseases of men; and several times I revealed things at which my father and mother wondered ... From my sixth to my twelfth year I used to delight in conversing with clergymen about faith, and that the life of faith is love...” (Letter to G. A. Beyer, Stockholm, Nov. 14, 1769. Tafel, II, 279-280)

In other words, his whole life was in preparation for his ultimate use of writing the published, authoritative works of the Second Coming.  The preparation idea has long been seen in the organized New Church as applying to Swedenborg's pre-theological work.  We are here simply suggesting its extrapolation to Swedenborg's unpublished theological works. But what about yet another famous statement, of Swedenborg's -  "From the first day of my call I have not received anything that pertains to the doctrine of that [New] Church from any angel, but from the Lord alone while reading the Word." (True Christian Religion 779)? The key point here is that this statement doesn't specify what level of understanding/illumination Swedenborg was receiving at at any given time, i.e. the extent to which he was still seeing "through a glass, darkly." (1. Corinthians. 13: 12)  In other words, this statement does not conflict with the idea of Swedenborg  going through the preparation process.  Even to the finessed extent of the Apocalypse Explained polishing.

So we propose that Swedenborg  proceeded, under God’s auspices, through steadily ascending levels of understanding in his revelation. The pre- to post-publication transformation, however, appears to have been a sort of discrete degree taking things to the next level, i.e. to the authoritative revelation level.  There are several pieces of evidence that such a shift took place:

1. When he arrived in Amsterdam in 1747, in the period just before he began to write the Arcana, he wrote in a manuscript, "1747, August 7, old style. 'There was a change of state in me into the heavenly kingdom in an image.'" "This note suggests he had experienced a profound change in his spiritual status on that day.  It is intriguing that he did not begin publishing theological material until after this change had taken place." (quoted, with translation modified by J.S. Rose, in F.S. Rose, "Swedenborg's Manuscripts," in  J.S. Rose (ed.) Emanuel Swedenborg. Essays for the New Century Edition on His Life, Work and Impact. Swedenborg Foundation: West Chester, 2005, pp.131, emphasis added) 

2. In that same period, he made a fundamental change in his usage: "In all the theological works up to this time [i.e. during the pre-published works era], the name he used for Christ was "God Messiah."  He ended this practice on January 23, 1748, when he abruptly shifted to the more traditional term, "The Lord," the term that he used to the end of his life.  Right at the outset of the first volume of his published works he explains what he means by that term.

"From this point on,  the term Lord is used in only one way:  to refer to the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, and the name "Lord" is used without any additions." (Arcana Coelestia 14)

(F.S. Rose, "Swedenborg's Manuscripts," in J.S. Rose (ed.) Emanuel Swedenborg. Essays for the New Century Edition on His Life, Work and Impact. Swedenborg Foundation: West Chester, 2005, pp.131, emphasis added.) 

3.  Although  perhaps coincidental, it is certainly of interest that during this period, in the summer of 1747, is also when he decided to resign his position on the Board of Mines, despite an offer to double his salary. (ibid.)

4.  Rev. Erik Sandström has mentioned in another context the idea that Swedenborg's revelation was "progressive" (E. Sandström. Appendix on Robsahm's Memoir, The New Philosophy 1998: 101 (whole issue)

5. Swedenborg followed the pattern in his pre-theological works of publishing some and not others (see list at  In other words, the pattern of publishing in some cases and refraining from publishing in others was apparently developed as part of  his preparatory period experience.

If there was in fact a "discrete degree" upward shift in his revelation perception level, that does not mean Swedenborg was outright mistaken in what he wrote in the unpublished works, just that he did not yet fully appreciate and convey "the whole truth and nothing but the truth."  He was just still in his preparation period and not yet at his full "heavenly image"/"plenary inspiration" "discrete degree."  Indeed, this explanation also covers another traditional problem seen in the published works themselves, namely the corrections he made to drafts of the published works.  These would appear - like the Apocalypse Explained polishing exercise - to represent just further refinements of his continuing learning/preparation, but in this case within the authoritative "discrete degree" level.  Extrapolating this argument still further, it seems reasonable to propose that the apparent mistakes in the published works themselves are just final odd and end leftovers of his learning/preparation that he didn’t have time to finish.  Recall that he said he could have written a lot more if it had been permitted (e.g. a number of times he refers to topics he did not pursue that would "fill many pages" (e.g. Arcana Coelestia  4623, True Christian Religion 444)). 

A point that has been raised in support of the unpublished works as authoritative is that the published works sometimes quote the pre-theological works (e.g. Prophets and Psalms).  But it was Swedenborg at the published-work "discrete degree" who was doing the quoting then, and in the illumination he had at that point he could presumably accurately pick out the true Word material from his earlier work.  Not to mention that, if quoting a work was enough to establish its status as part of the revealed Word of God, then you would have to include the book of Job, the Epistles of Paul, etc. (e.g. Apocalypse Revealed  417, True Christian Religion 59), which are explicitly excluded from the list of canonical books revealed in Arcana Coelestia 10325, White Horse 16 and New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 266.

If the case is made that the preparatory theological works were just that and nothing more, an obvious question is why, then, didn't Swedenborg discard the rough copies of them, as he did rough copies of the published works and much of his correspondence (cf. J.S. Rose, "Annotated Bibliography of Swedenborg's Writings," in Emanuel Swedenborg. Essays for the New Century Edition on His Life, Work and Impact. Swedenborg Foundation: West Chester, 2005, p. 388)?  Swedenborg must have known the problems the unpublished works would potentially cause if he left them behind. One obvious answer would be that expectation of those problems arising was precisely the reason why he did leave the unpublished material.  In the best free-will-maintaining tradition, leaving it provided grist for the mill for those looking for reasons to discount the teachings of the Second Coming, in keeping with the negative principle (Arcana Coelestia 2568, 2588). It seems reasonable to propose, in fact, that the handful of  “mistakes” in the published works (e.g. in True Christian Religion 632, and Brief Exposition 31, the date of the Nicene Council is stated as 318 instead of 325) were provided for the same reason – so the negative principle doubter would have material with which to do his or her thing in freedom.  The Second Coming teachings are, after all, a pretty overwhelming and logically compelling revelation, so it would seem particularly important to provide some disbelief opportunities!

In Conclusion

The unpublished works have long been a source of incorrect teaching (see, for instance, the teachings listed in "Swedenborgian Legends.").  Is there any role at all for those works? Swedenborg, in two places in his unpublished work, characterized the Biblical epistles as “useful books for the church” (Apocalypse Explained 815, Letter to Beyer, April 15, 1766), even though not revelation. It has been proposed that the unpublished works may stand in a similar position relative to the teachings of the Second Coming.  Could that be the case?   If the unpublished works are the product of a lower discrete degree level of revelation, it would certainly seem neither logical nor appropriate to use them to interpret the higher degree of revelation of the published works. Thus, the unpublished works would appear to be, like Swedenborg's pre-theological works, only of historical interest, for those studying how Swedenborg got to where he did. 

Practically speaking, the allegiance to the unpublished works for the last 200 years by many followers of "Swedenborgian" teachings has created what would seem to me to be a major problem: Much of the  large collection of doctrinal thinking and collateral literature that has been developed over all those years is a blend of material from Swedenborg's published work and from the unpublished works, most notably Apocalypse Explained and the Spiritual Diary/Spiritual Experiences. In other words, that literature and doctrine is not a reliable source of information about what God actually teaches and thus is not helpful, and perhaps hazardous, to our spiritual life.  Clearly this situation needs to be rectified.  How?  Going back and trying to separate the inspired from the unpublished material in all that doctrine and literature would be a huge task.  It would also seem to me to be pointless. Wouldn't it make more sense - and be a whole lot faster response to this urgent need - to simply go back and start over, and build an "All things new" (Revelation 21: 5) set of doctrine and practice based purely on the  published works? 


[1] J.F Potts "Are there imperfections in Swedenborg's Scripture Interpretations?New Church Review April 1911, p. 243-258

[2] It should be noted that 12 of the 15 "mistakes" Potts cites were from the (unpublished)  Apocalypse Explained.

* * * * *

For some doctrinal ramifications of separating out the unpublished works, see the list at "Swedenborgian Legends."

For a search engine restricted to the Divinely inspired works of the Old and New Testaments and the teachings of the Second Coming, see Small Canon Search.

For a list of Swedenborg's theological works that were not inspired, click here.

For a related subject, see "Do We Need Church Organizations?"

- Kurt Simons

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