from Robert H. Kirven, "A Concise Overview of  Swedenborg's Theology, (Appleseed & Co. MA 2003)

Table of  Contents


Chapter 1


Introduction to the Course: Human Nature

THIS COURSE IS AN "OVERVIEW" IN THE SENSE that it involves a somewhat cursory view of the theology found in the whole body of Swedenborg's theological writings, and also in the sense that this content will be seen as much as possible as a whole—with some attention to the structure of the theological system that is found in those volumes. It is something like a map-maker's photograph of the earth from a high-flying plane or a satellite: it should provide a perception of enough detail that every part of the system can be recognized for what it is, but at the same time all the parts can be seen together, emphasizing their relationships to one another.

The "height" chosen to see the system this way is necessarily a compromise. In every topic studied some details must be omitted or included only in broad generalizations in order to emphasize the system. The temptation is to see the landscape from a closer perspective, but this is impossible in our timeframe. Consequently we must "fly higher" to get a broader view. The presentation part of each chapter—like a lecture in a classroom course— attempts to compensate for some of these compromises. In these short articles I try not to simply anticipate the reading; rather, I point out aspects of ideas that are only implied by the selected readings, cross-reference those ideas that have been studied with others that will be detailed later, and briefly suggest points of comparison with experience, history, and culture.

By titling the book A Concise Overview of Swedenborg's Theology, I do not imply any prejudice regarding any of the questions about the nature and authority of Swedenborg's works (issues that will be studied in Chapters 7  and elsewhere). Rather, the title is intended to imply an emphasis on what Swedenborg wrote, as opposed to one or another tradition of interpreting what he wrote. My presentations must be interpretive, by nature; but the essential part of the course is the readings in Swedenborg, and what he said must be studied carefully before we make generalizations about what he meant.

"Theology" in the title is meant to separate the course from one that could be given on Swedenborg's philosophical and scientific works, as well as from one on philosophical interpretations that can be drawn from his theology. We're studying Swedenborg's theology, not Swedenborgian theology. The assigned readings are almost entirely true to this purpose, though the presentations wander across those boundaries briefly from time to time.

The reading assignments—"Passages from Swedenborg"—at the end of each chapter—are not perfectly divided into thirteen equal parts, although the grouping of topics in the different chapters works in this direction. Although the fragmented and scattered readings give only a cursory view of Swedenborg's theology, reading and reflecting on each assignment needs to be as careful and thorough as possible.

One last introductory word, this time about mechanics. The assignments for several of the chapters require a lot of shuffling of volumes and flipping of pages to find the selections when reading in other published editions. To minimize this, the assignments list readings in progressive order, even in chapters where there are two or more topics. This has the disadvantage that each passage is not specifically identified with the chapter it refers to; but this should be obvious after reading the passage. There is the compensating advantage that, when topics within a chapter are closely related so that one passage applies to more than one of them, it needs to be listed, located, and read only once.

We may now consider the concept that introduces the content of the course: human nature. This is one of the chapters in which the vocabulary of my presentation deliberately varies from the vocabulary of the passages you will be reading if you look up the section numbers on other published translations. Depending on the context, I use "human nature," "human being," "human race," "people," "person," and "we" and "you" to translate Swedenborg's Latin homo. In most English translations, homo is translated as "man," but that leaves no easy way of distinguishing homo from the Latin vir, which also is translated "man." Homo, which Swedenborg uses to translate the Hebrew adam in the Old Testament, is a generic term, denoting any or all human beings without reference to gender. Vir, and the corresponding Hebrew ish, denote "man" in the sense of a male human being—"man" as opposed to "woman." I try to restrict my use of "man" to the latter purpose. This is an important distinction between my translations in this book and many other published versions.

The first reading assignment, Secrets of Heaven 69, points out the central issue in Swedenborg's understanding of what a human being is. A human being is a spirit clothed with a body. Both spirit and body are essential to the definition of a human being: a spirit without a body is no more a human being than a body without a spirit. Inhabitants of the spiritual world who no longer have a material body are from the human race. They do have spiritual bodies, but they are called "spirits" or "angels" rather than "human beings" because they have a different nature derived from spiritual substance only and live a different life than a spirit-clothed-with-a-material-body.

This is one of many issues over which thinkers have argued for ages, treating the question as an "either-or" type, while Swedenborg answers in terms of "both-and." Instead of arguing that human nature is either primarily physical with some spiritual aspects, or primarily spiritual with a kind of physical facade, Swedenborg argues that human nature is irreducibly and inseparably both spiritual and physical.

Similarly, do not spend much time trying to figure out an "either-or" answer to the essential human quality of good or evil: human nature is essentially both. If that suggests an unstable condition of active internal opposition with possible alternative resolutions, that's because it is supposed to suggest that. Human existence is an unstable conflict of opposing tendencies, with no certain outcome of the conflict (for reasons described in Chapter 10). You may read absolute statements by Swedenborg that "human beings left to themselves" are "nothing but" evil; but remember that, existentially, there is no such human being. That is purely an intellectual abstraction. There can be no human nature actually left to itself, because human life, like all existence, depends absolutely on life flowing in continually from the Lord. That life, inseparable from human existence, is "in the image and after the likeness of God" just as our physical nature, equally inseparable from human life, but considered simply as if it were possible for it to exist by itself, is nothing but evil.

The phrase "I'm only human" usually refers to what is weak, evil, and false in our nature. But that is only a part of Swedenborg's concept of human nature. In that concept, "only" is almost never applicable to "human:" the only true measure of the potential stature of human nature is the Lord himself.

The outline of topics in this course moves from experiential to abstract. Therefore, relate the presentations and reading assignments of these early chapters to your own personal experience of living a human life.

If you use the reading assignments as a guide to reading further in other published volumes, you will find that some of the titles used in this book do not match some published earlier. A table coordinating the titles appearing here (and in the Swedenborg Foundation's New Century Edition of Swedenborg's writings) with other publications can be found at the front of this book.


Read the following passages from Swedenborg. For further reading in other published versions, see the passages listed below:

Secrets of Heaven 69, 714 ,3175 ,7847-7848
Heaven and Hell 57, 453-484
Divine Love and Wisdom 1-6



SH 69

We were created by the Lord to be capable of talking with spirits and angels while living in our bodies because we are just like them—spirits, but clothed with bodies. Such communication was practiced in earliest times; but in the course of history people became so engrossed in bodily and worldly concerns that they cared about almost nothing else, so that way was closed. But as soon as those bodily preoccupations recede, the way is opened again. Then we are among spirits, sharing their life.

SH 714

In themselves, seen as they really are, human beings are nothing but beasts. Their senses, their appetites, their natural desires, and all their affections are similar to those that beasts have. Their good loves, even their best loves, are very similar to those of beasts—loving their mates, their children, and companions of their own kind. It is as if there were absolutely no difference. The fact that people have an inner life which beasts do not and cannot have, makes them human and superior to beasts. That life is the life of faith and love from the Lord. Without that life in every smallest characteristic that people have in common with beasts, they would not be different at all.

Take love between companions, for example. If people loved their friends merely for their own advantage, without anything more heavenly or more divine within that selfish love, they couldn't be called human because the situation is the same with beasts. The case would be similar with any other example that could be taken; so if the life of love from the Lord were not present in our will, and the life of faith from the Lord in our understanding, we would not be human in any way.

It is the life that we have from the Lord that enables us to live after death, for the Lord takes us unto himself, and in this way we can be with angels in his heaven and live forever. And even when we live like wild animals, loving nothing whatever but ourselves and things related to ourselves, still the Lord's mercy—which is divine and infinite—does not abandon us but continually (by means of angels) breathes his life into us. And even if we do not receive that life except in the way a wild beast would receive it, the Lord still makes it possible for us to think, reflect, and understand whether anything is true or false—whether it be something private or public, worldly, or corporeal.

SH 1594

[Living as human beings, we can discover that] the main thing that separates our outsides from our insides is self-love. The main thing that unites each person's outside to the inside is mutual love; we cannot know mutual love until self-love fades, for they are direct opposites.

Our internal self is nothing but that same mutual love. Our inside—our human spirit itself, our soul—is our inner self which lives after death. It is organic, for it is yoked to our body while we live in this world. This self, our soul or spirit, is not our self (although our internal self is within our inner self when mutual love is in it). Everything about our internal self is the Lord's, to the point that one may say a person's internal self is the Lord. The Lord allows our own self to be heavenly as long as mutual love is in us as angelic or as human beings; therefore we have no idea but that we do good things on our own, and our internal self is attributed to us as if it were our own.

SH 3175

Human beings are born into no truth at all: everything has to be learned. The learning occurs through external paths, namely hearing and sight, by which true perceptions have to be led into the memory and implanted there. But so long as true learning is in thememory only, it is merely data. For true knowledge to suffuse a person it must be called from the memory and carried more deeply inward in the mind. What makes people human is in their more inward reaches—in their rational mind, in fact. Unless people are rational they are not human: the nature and capacity of a person's reasoning faculty determine what kind, and how much of a human being, the person is.

Human beings are in no way capable of being rational unless there are good qualities in them. Good qualities which distinguish humans above other living beings are loving God and the neighbor. All good aspects of a person derive from this, and everything true must be introduced to this good in the rational capacity and united with it. True knowledge is introduced and united to what is good in people when they love God and their neighbors. In that case, what is true enters into what is good, since everything that is good and everything that is true mutually acknowledge each other. Indeed, what is good is the source of everything that is true, and what is true acknowledges the good as its own real goal and even its soul. Thus the good is the source from which the truth has life.
But it is disturbing to separate true knowledge from our natural aspects and raise it up from there into our rational ones; for delusions, evil desires, and false persuasions are present in our natural inclinations. While these are present in our natural inclinations, linking themselves to our true knowledge, our natural self holds on to that knowledge and does not allow it to be raised up into our rational capacity, for it doubts whether what it knows is true and reasons whether it is true or not. But as soon as the Lord separates us from these evil desires and false persuasions (and the delusions resulting from them), and what is good in us starts to reject our reasonings against truth and treats our doubts with disdain, then our true knowledge can depart from our natural mind and be raised up into our rational mind and come into a good state. In this case, what is true comes to be knowledge rooted in good purposes and has life in it.

HH 57

The church is the Lord's heaven on earth. There are many churches, each one of them called a church, and each of them is a church to the extent that the good result of love and faith reigns in it. As in other cases, the Lord makes a single whole out of different elements—one church out of many.

Similar things can be said in particular about people of the church as are said in general about the church as a whole. It can be said that the church is within people and not outside them; any person at all, in whom the Lord is effectively present in the good outcome of love and faith, is a church.

Even statements about angels (who have heaven within them) can be virtually repeated about people who have the church within them. We can say that each is a church in its smallest form in the same way that an angel is heaven in its smallest form. Further still, we can say that people who have the church within them are, in each case, heaven, just as an angel is. After all, people were created to enter heaven and become angels, so a person who possesses good from the Lord is a human angel.

It is worth noting what people have in common with angels and what they have beyond what angels have. Like angels, a person's more inward aspects are patterned after heaven, and people become true likenesses of heaven to the extent that they are involved with the good result of love and faith.

Beyond what angels have, people have their outward aspects conformed to the pattern of this world; they have "their world" subordinated to heaven and are serving heaven to the extent that they are doing good things. Then they have the Lord's effective presence with them on both levels, just as if they were living with him in his heaven. In fact, the Lord is in his divine order on both levels, for God is order.[1.

(For notes, indicated by bracketed [ ] numbers in text, go to Notes link.


People recognize that love exists, but they do not know what love is. Their recognition is evident from common speech: they say, "He loves me," "the king loves his subjects," "a husband loves his wife," "a mother loves her children." On the other hand, people say certain people love their country, their compatriots, their neighbors. Also, they say similar things about inanimate objects—"She loves this" or "he loves that." But in spite of the way "love" pervades our speech, hardly anyone knows what love is.

No one can know what human life is without knowing what love is. Without knowing this, one person can believe that life is to sense-and-react, another that life is to think. Actually, thinking is the primary effect of life; sensing-and-acting are secondary.

I call thinking the primary effect of life; there is thinking that progresses inward and thinking that progresses outward, but perception of goals—the most inward thinking—is actually life's primary effect.

Some idea of love and how it is our very life can be gathered from the sun's heat in our world. That heat is, in a sense, the common life of all the earth's plants. When it increases as it does in springtime, plants of all sorts spring up from the ground. They adorn themselves with leaves, then blossoms, and finally fruit. But when the heat decreases, as it does in the fall and winter, they are stripped of their signs of life and they wither. Love has a similar effect on human beings: love and heat correspond to each other. Love also warms.

To Chapter 2