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

Table of  Contents


Chapter 7


The Word and Its Senses; Correspondences; Authority

THE WORD—USUALLY WITH A CAPITAL "W" in English—covered a considerable range of related meanings for Swedenborg. His Latin had two words, vox and verbum, both of which must be rendered by one English word, "word." He used the Latin vox to designate the written appearance or spoken sound of a word, distinct from its meaning, and used verbum for the meaning and, capitalized, for the Word of the Lord.

Supremely, the Word is truth itself (absolute truth beyond finite human comprehension, but intrinsic to the nature of God), divine wisdom and divine life—by means of which all things come into being out of the infinite creative energy of divine love. In this sense, the Word (always with a capital "W") is the source of life in all living creatures and the origin of all true knowledge and understanding.

Mediately, the Word is God's revelation of himself or truth accommodated to finite human understanding. With a small "w," the word in this sense usually is a particular truth revealed to someone, as "the word that Amos saw." Capitalized, it refers to the entire panorama of revelation: history and creation. Revelation is history, in the sense that Israel's history reveals knowledge leading to salvation; creation, in that the created universe correspondentially reveals the nature of spiritual reality. Finally, the Word is the fullest self-revelation of God in the Word-become-flesh (Jesus, the Christ).

Specifically, the Word is the Bible. Most specifically, or especially, it is those books of the Bible that contain a continuous spiritual meaning based on—and found within—the literal meaning. This specific designation—the Word within and beyond the literal sense—includes another range of meanings. Swedenborg saw multiple levels of revelation in the written Word of the Lord, levels that most often are called the "senses" of the Word.

Without counting lines of text to be certain, it is at least probable that Swedenborg wrote more about the Word and its senses than he wrote about any other topic. In different contexts, the number of senses in the Word, their designations, and their relationship to one another varies within a considerable range. To cite just a few examples:

In Secrets of Heaven 4750, he describes two senses of the Word, namely, good and its opposite. In Secrets of Heaven 5247, he describes two senses: internal and external. In Sacred Scripture 4, he again speaks of two, one spiritual and one natural. In Sacred Scripture 5, the two are spiritual and literal. In Secrets of Heaven 4606, there are three, internal, external, and supreme; in True Christianity 91, the three are natural, spiritual, and celestial. In Revelation Unveiled (Apocalypse Revealed in older translations) 1066, there are four, and Secrets of Heaven 8443 refers to six degrees of "Truth Divine," each of which can be considered a separate "sense."

This scattered sampling is not at all intended to be complete; nor, on the other hand, is it intended to be intimidating. Rather, it is intended to suggest the dynamic nature of Swedenborg's teaching about the Word and its senses and to show that in different contexts, from different perspectives, for different purposes, with different emphases, he points out different polarities. Usually, he speaks of two: one is the natural, literal, or external sense; and the other is the internal, spiritual, or heavenly sense. When he speaks of three senses, the third is the supreme or heavenly sense. Notice that "heavenly" is listed among the possibilities for two different senses. That never happens in the same context. When three senses are discussed, or where two levels of internal sense are described, heavenly means a higher sense than the spiritual.

In many respects, and in many instances where they appear, these various names for the different senses can be taken fairly simply as synonyms for two or three levels of meaning. Such levels are found within, based on, and reach beyond the plain meaning of the words as you read them on a page of the Bible. "Interior" and "exterior" senses are referred to occasionally, and are intermediate, comparative terms, usually paired with "internal" or "external" which are absolutes. Sometimes, much more precise gradations appear ("internal-historical," "spiritual-natural," etc.) but usually they are explained in their contexts. In all cases, look for the point that is being made, and the terminology will not be overwhelming.

So much for vocabulary. What's it all about? The assignment for this chapter includes True Christianity 194, which begins: "What the spiritual sense is." Read it and see if you find out. All I see there is what the spiritual sense is not. I do not think Swedenborg is trying to confuse you there. He's being careful that you are not misled. But the danger remains.

For instance, it is easy to mistakenly assume that the spiritual sense is a kind of "other language." That assumption implies that, just as Swedenborg is translated from Latin into English, French, or whatever, the literal sense can be translated again into the spiritual sense. Sorry, but what you get then is the correspondential sense. The spiritual sense, most simply put, is what the spiritual angels understand when you are reading the Word. Now, maybe your anima can get an understanding of the spiritual sense from the spiritual angels it associates with, or maybe you've regenerated to the point where you understand it that way directly. But even if you understand or, more accurately in most cases, feel the spiritual sense, you can't quite put it into words. Our words are a natural language and can convey only a natural sense, or a natural understanding of the spiritual sense. Even when Swedenborg unveils the spiritual—and especially the heavenly—sense, it still is reduced to natural terms. That's why Swedenborg often explains that what it really, finally means is unintelligible. The spiritual sense of the Word is more nearly something you experience while reading the Word than something you can put into words.

The closest you can come to putting it into words, of course, is through correspondences. Correspondences also are an excellent aid in turning your mind in the direction that makes the experience of the spiritual sense most easily attained. Correspondences are not just a principle of Bible interpretation. Long before he began to use the principle of correspondence to deepen his understanding of the Word, Swedenborg had recognized it as a fundamental principle in the created order of things. We'll get back to that in Chapters 12 and 13, but it's important to remember that correspondence is the link between physical and natural reality, and the Bible—written from the perspective of Truth itself—uses the structure of creation to convey eternal truths while talking about rivers and mountains, sun and moon, rocks and trees.

Everything that was created corresponds to something else that was created. Bedrock in the earth corresponds to the spiritual reality of fundamental faith. The Lord, appearing in the heavens as a spiritual sun, corresponds to the physical sun in our sky; he radiates love and wisdom as our sun radiates heat and light. Correspondence is a true relationship inherent in creation.

Everything that corresponds also represents, although not all representatives are correspondences. A smile on your face is a representative of your inner feelings—a false one if you smile as you greet your enemy, and a true one (a correspondence) if you are smiling at someone you are happy to see. All representatives, both true and false, also signify something. However, some significatives do not really represent. Occasionally Swedenborg interchanges these terms as synonyms; but at critical points, where he is careful with terms, this is the relationship between these three.

Rather inconspicuously in Secrets of Heaven 4, Swedenborg states a primary purpose for writing the work, namely, to demonstrate convincingly that there is an internal sense in the Holy Word. Looking back, thirty volumes and over two hundred years later, it seems like such a little thing. However, when he wrote that he would "sufficiently establish" the existence of an internal sense in Sacred Scripture, he was promising something that no one had ever imagined (his idea of an internal sense, connected to the literal by correspondences, was radically different from the old allegorical system). Why should anyone believe such a claim?

To begin, he uses an inductive proof: chapter by chapter, verse by verse, word by word, he shows that consistent application of a consistent method reveals a self-consistent, coherent, deeply significant internal sense. But why should this be accepted as divine revelation, rather than a clever scheme of interpretation?

For authority at this level, he turns to another kind of consistency: each theological point of the internal sense is shown to be consistent with the literal sense of Scripture at many points. Later, he would call this consistency the primary authority for theological confirmation (True Christianity 229).

He uses other substantiations for different purposes, but his deepest, most fundamental authority for claiming to present a divine revelation is revelation itself—a revelation that comes to all who lead lives of true charity. In a way that is not obvious but not completely hidden either, the Lord leads people to want to believe what is true (Secrets of Heaven 8694).


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

Secrets of Heaven 1-5, 64, 68, 2987-3001, 6597, 8694, 10321-10325
Revelation Unveiled (Apocalypse Revealed in older translations) near the end of the Preface and Chapter 1
Heaven and Hell 87-115
True Christianity CHAPTER 4.


The Word and Its Senses; Correspondences; Authority

SH 1

The Word in the Old Testament contains heavenly secrets. Each and every part of it has to do with the Lord, his heaven, his church, faith, and everything related to faith. No mortal being can get this from the letter—the literal meaning of the Bible—where no one sees anything but details which relate in a general way to Jewish religion. However, the fact is that everywhere in the Old Testament there is an inner meaning that cannot be detected on the surface—except for a few things. Some of these are things that the Lord revealed and explained to the Apostles. He revealed, for example that the Jewish sacrifices symbolize the Lord, that the land of Canaan and Jerusalem symbolize heaven—which is why they are called heavenly Canaan and heavenly Jerusalem—and that Paradise has a similar meaning.

SH 2

The former Christian world remains ignorant that the entire Old Testament—every part of it, even the smallest part of every letter—involves and symbolizes spiritual and heavenly realities. That explains why people care so little about the Old Testament. However, there is one concept that enables them to understand: [they realize that] the Word is the Lord's and comes from him, so it could not exist without containing the kinds of things that relate to heaven, the church, and faith. Without those things, it could not be called "The Word of the Lord," nor could it be said that there is anything alive in it. After all, where could its life come from unless something in it was alive? How could the Word have life in it unless every single thing in it relates to the Lord, who truly is life itself? Whatever does not regard him at some deeper level is not living. Any expression in the Word that does not involve the Lord, or refer to him in its own way, is not divine.

SH 3

Without this kind of life, the Word is dead as far as its literal meaning is concerned. Indeed, the Word is like a human being who has an external nature and an internal one, as is known in the Christian world. Our outside, separated from our inside, is our body, so it is dead. Our inside, however, is what lives and allows our outside to live. Our human inside is our soul. In the same way, the Word—if seen only as its literal meaning—is like a body without a soul.

SH 4

When our mind is occupied by the literal meaning alone, it can never show us what is contained within the letter. For example, consider the first chapter of Genesis. Its literal meaning alone reveals nothing but things concerning the world's creation, the Garden of Eden (called Paradise), and Adam, the first human ever created. Who would say anything else?

However, it will be sufficiently established in what follows that it does indeed contain hidden treasures that have never been revealed before. The internal sense of the first chapter of Genesis concerns our new creation (that is to say, our regeneration) in general, and the very earliest church [our oldest style of religious life] in particular. This happens in such a way that not even the smallest syllable of the smallest word fails to represent, symbolize, and incorporate this meaning.

SH 5

No mortal being is able to know this without the Lord's making it possible. Therefore, I've been allowed to reveal in this preface that in his divine mercy the Lord has allowed me to mingle with spirits and angels, to hear them talking, and to speak to them in return. Several years of this, without break or interruption, has enabled me to see and hear astonishing things in the other life, things which have never before come into anyone's knowledge or imagination.

I have been taught in the other life about different kinds of spirits and the situation of souls after death; about hell and the regrettable situation of the faithless; about heaven and the most happy situation of the faithful; and, most importantly, what the faith that is acknowledged in the universal heaven teaches. By the Lord's divine mercy, all of this will be expanded in what follows.

SH 64

[What you have seen in this first chapter] the Word's inner meaning, the truest life in it, which in no way appears in the literal meaning. But the number of treasures hidden within the Word is so large that many volumes would be insufficient to unfold all of them. Only a minimum sample has been given here, examples that can confirm that regeneration is being discussed, and that it progresses from our outside to our inside.

This is how angels understand the Word. They know nothing at all about what is literal or the most obvious meaning of even a single word—much less the names of different countries, cities, rivers, and the people whose names appear throughout the historical and prophetic books. They visualize only the things that those words and names symbolize. For example, Adam in Paradise brings the very earliest church to their minds—and not even that church itself, but its faith in the Lord. The image of Noah suggests to them the remnant of that church among its successors until Abram's time. Abraham never suggests to them the living man, but rather makes them think of a saving faith of the kind he represented, and so on. In this way, they see spiritual and heavenly realities in the Word, with no connection to the words or names.

SH 68

It is not hidden from me that many people will say that no one is able to converse with spirits and angels while still living in a body, and that many will call it a fantasy. Others will say that I have related such stories to gain people's trust, and others will say other things. But I don't care: I have seen, I have heard, I have felt.

SH 2987

Few people have any idea of what representations and correspondences are. No one can know what they are without knowing that there is a spiritual world and that it is distinct from the natural world. Correspondences exist between spiritual things and natural things, and appearances of spiritual things within natural things are representations. Correspondences are so called because they correspond; as representations are so named because they represent.

SH 2988

You can get some idea of representations and correspondences if you consider the mind's properties—specifically, thought and intention—which normally shine from the face so that they are plainly visible in facial expressions. Feelings, especially, display their inner qualities in the eyes. When aspects of the face act in concert with aspects of the mind, they are said to correspond, and to exist as correspondences; while the actual facial expressions represent [the mind's thoughts, intentions, and feelings], and exist as representations. Similarly, bodily gestures, and all the movements that muscles cause in our bodies, are well known to be expressions of what a person is thinking and intending. The physical gestures and movements represent what is going on in the mind, and are called representations. When those physical things agree with the mental ones, they correspond.

SH 2989

Reflections of this kind do not take shape in our mind exactly as they appear on our face: it is our feelings that display themselves there. Neither do actions exist in the mind exactly as they present themselves through bodily movements. Rather, it is thoughts that are presented in this way. What occurs in our minds is spiritual, while what happens in our bodies is physical. That is to say, when aspects of our internal self take shape in our external self, what is visible on our outside is representative of what is inside, and those outer appearances that agree with the inner reality are correspondent.

SH 2990

It is well known (or certainly could be), that there is a spiritual world and a material world. Broadly speaking, the spiritual world is where spirits and angels are, and the material world is where human beings are. In detail, there is a spiritual world and a natural world within each individual person, our internal nature being our spiritual world and our external being our material world. In most cases, any thoughts, intentions, or feelings that flow from our spiritual world to our natural world are representations and, to the extent that the inward and outward agree with one another, they are correspondences.

SH 2991

You can know that material things represent spiritual things and that they correspond to them from this: no material thing can possibly exist without a cause prior to itself, and its cause is something spiritual. . . . All material things represent spiritual things to which they correspond, in the same way that spiritual things represent heavenly things from which they exist.

SH 2992

Much experience has enabled me to know that in the natural world—in all three of its kingdoms—there is nothing of any kind that does not represent something in the spiritual world or does not have something [spiritual] to which it corresponds....

SH 2996

Everything in the human body has a correspondence with something in heaven. This is the most deeply hidden secret in this world, but nothing is better known in the other life. There is not even the smallest particle in the human body that does not have something spiritual and heavenly (that is, some heavenly community) corresponding to it.

SH 2997

Our internal or spiritual self, which is our spirit and is called our soul, has a correspondence with our natural or external self....

SH 2998

People are unaware of the existence of this correspondence and do not believe they have any connection with the spiritual world; yet we are totally entwined with that world, and without that connection we could not continue to exist for a single moment. No single part of us could continue to exist. Our entire continued existence depends on that connection.

SH 6597

[In the preceding volumes] we have looked at the internal sense of things in the Book of Genesis. That book consists entirely of historical narratives (apart from Chapters 48 and 49, in which prophetic statements also are found). It may be hard to see that the internal sense really is what has been laid out here, because history does draw the mind toward the literal sense and lead it away from the internal sense (especially because the internal sense is so different from the literal one, dealing as it does with spiritual and heavenly things, while the literal is concerned with worldly and earthly matters).

The internal sense is the way I have explained it. You can see this from the details of my explanation and, most importantly, from the fact that it has been told to me again and again from heaven.

SH 8694

"Revelation" means vivid representation when the Word is read (and reception of what is presented). People who are involved with doing good things and who desire what is true are taught by the Word through revelation. On the other hand, those who are not doing what is good for other people cannot be taught from the Word. They can only be hardened in whatever they have been taught from early childhood, whether those things are true or false. Revelation comes to those who live good lives but not to those who are involved with what is evil, because the entire Word (and every detail of it) concerns the Lord and his reign. The angels present with us perceive this level of meaning from it. It is their perception which is communicated to us when we are into doing what is good, when we are reading the Word and when we are desiring what is true because that is what we love. The illustration and our reception of it come through the angels who are with us.

Those who are involved with what is good, and consequently what is true, have their intellectual faculties opened to heaven, and their soul—that is, their internal nature—is in community with angels. Everything is different for those who are not involved with what is good and so do not have a desire for what is true springing from that good. Heaven is closed to them.

It is hard to describe what revelation is like for those who are accustomed to doing good and who consequently love what is true. It is not something obvious, but neither is it completely hidden. It is like a kind of inner inclination to prefer a thing that is true or to avoid it if it is not true. When the inclination is to prefer, the mind relaxes and becomes serene, capable of the kind of knowing that comes from faith.

SH 10321

The Word, being revelation from the Divine, is divine in each and every part; for what is divine cannot be otherwise.

SH 10322

The Word contains an internal sense for the angels, which is a spiritual sense; and an external sense for us, which is natural. This is how heaven is conjoined with the human race through the Word.

SH 10323

The authentic sense of the Word can be grasped only by those who are enlightened, and only they are enlightened who love the Lord and have faith in him; their inward aspects are elevated by the Lord into the light of heaven.

SH 10324

The Word in the letter cannot be grasped without teachings drawn from the Word by one who is enlightened, for its literal sense has been written so that even simple people who need teachings from the Word to guide them as a lamp can understand.

SH 10325

The books of the Word are all those which have an internal sense. Those which do not have it are not the Word. Books of the Word in the Old Testament are the five books of Moses, the books of Joshua, Judges, both books of Samuel and of Kings, the Psalms of David, the books of the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachai; and in the New Testament the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—and Revelation.

TC 193

The Word is spiritual in its inmost aspect because it has descended from the Lord Jehovah and has passed through the heaven of angels. In this descent, the divine nature itself—which is beyond expression and perception—has been successively adapted to permit first angels, and finally human beings, to grasp it. Therefore, there is a spiritual sense. This spiritual sense is inside the natural sense like the soul in a person, or like the intellect's thought within speech, and like the will's affection within action....

TC 194

The spiritual sense is...the principal reason why the Word is spiritual for human beings as well as for angels. It enables the Word to serve as a channel of communication with the heavens. Being spiritual, the Word was composed of pure correspondences. Anything composed of correspondences emerges with its outermost sense resembling the style used by the Prophets, the Gospels, and Revelation. Although it seems ordinary, it has divine wisdom and all the wisdom of the angels stored within it....

TC 200

It is the spiritual sense that makes the Word divinely inspired and holy in every word.

TC 201

The spiritual sense of the Word has been unknown until now. Every single thing to be found in nature corresponds to something spiritual. Every single part of the human body does, too. But it has been unknown until now what correspondence is.

In the earliest times, however, it was very well known. Those who lived in those times regarded a knowledge of correspondences as the most prized of all kinds of knowledge, and it was understood so universally that all their documents and books were written by the use of correspondences. The hieroglyphic writings of the Egyptians, as well as the myths of the earliest peoples, were nothing else. All the ancient churches served to represent spiritual ideas: their rites and the rules that governed the establishment of their modes of worship were made up of nothing but correspondences. The same is true of all details of the church among the Children of Israel. Their burnt offerings, sacrifices, sacrificial cakes and libations in all their particulars had meaning as correspondences. Also, the Tabernacle and all its contents, as well as all their festivals...together with their holy vestments...all the laws and judgments governing their worship and way of life had meaning as correspondences. Since divine ideas are presented in the world as correspondences, this and no other is the way the Word was written. Therefore the Lord spoke in correspondences, since he spoke from the Divine....

TC 204

In the course of time the representative rites of the church, which were correspondences, began to be turned into idolatrous practices and magical rites. Therefore, the Lord's divine providence ensured that the knowledge should gradually be lost and totally wiped out among the Israelite and Jewish people. Their worship consisted entirely of correspondences, and therefore was representative of heavenly things, but they were unaware of what each detail meant....

TC 206

Later, a knowledge of correspondences, which allows people to grasp the spiritual sense of the Word, was not revealed because the earliest Christians were very simple people. It could not be revealed to them because it could not have been understood and would have been of no use to them.... After their times, darkness arose to cover the whole Christian world, first by the spread of a number of heresies, and soon afterward by the decisions and decrees of the Council of Nicea about the existence of three divine persons from eternity and about the Person of Christ being the son of Mary and not the son of Jehovah God. That is the course from which gushed forth the current belief in justification, according to which three Gods are approached in turn. On this belief depends every single detail of the church today [ i.e., around 1772], just as all the parts of the body are dependent upon the head. Because they used everything in the Word to prove this erroneous belief, the spiritual sense could not be revealed. If it had been, they would have used this sense for the same purpose, so profaning the very holiness of the Word, and thus completely closing heaven to themselves and banishing the Lord from the church.

TC 207

A knowledge of correspondences has been revealed at this time, allowing the spiritual sense to be grasped. The spiritual sense of the Word consists of divine truths of the church, and these are now coming into light....


Secrets of Heaven 1-5, 64, 68, 2987-3001, 6597, 8694, 10321-10325
Revelation Unveiled (Apocalypse Revealed in older translations) near the end of the Preface and Chapter 1
Heaven and Hell 87-115
True Christianity CHAPTER 4.


How would you respond to the person who asks, "If the spiritual sense is what God meant when God revealed the Word, why didn't the biblical writers write that, instead of something else?"

Particular words in the Judeo-Christian canon have a variety of correspondences, some of which are directly opposite to others, and this variety occurs because the words appear in different contexts. How does context affect correspondences?

Without quoting Swedenborg, how would you describe the spiritual sense succinctly?

What questions or issues does the lesson raise for you?

To Chapter 8