The Bible that was Lost
Psalm 19 The Law of the Lord is perfect
But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the Word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8:15)
One of the few traditions that is observed in almost every Swedenborgian church is having the open Bible on the altar as the centerpiece of our worship. This church, like many other Swedenborgian churches, begins its worship service by opening the Bible, and ends the service by closing it. It is a ritual that reminds us each week that the source of all our worship and our spiritual enlightenment is the Word of God. We give the Bible a central position in our chancel to show it honor and reverence as the Lord's presence among us in the form of our Sacred Scriptures, or written Word.
Today I would like to take a closer look at our church's beliefs about the Bible, and why it has such a central place in our worship and our spiritual life.
Of course, God shows Himself to us in many ways, not just in the Bible. All of nature around us - yes, the entire physical universe - is a testament to the Lord's greatness and majesty, and an expression of His nature. We can see the face of the Lord in the face of every person who does a kind deed or gives us some needed insight about life. The Lord reaches out to us from the spiritual world in dreams and sometimes in visions. We can learn more about the Lord from the experiences of those who spend a brief time in the spiritual world when they have a brush with death. Much of human literature, either directly or indirectly, is an attempt to reach out to God and to the spiritual level of our existence. The theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg are an especially potent revelation of the nature of God and spirit. We can also share our thoughts and feelings directly with the Lord through prayer.
However, among all those ways the Lord comes to us, the Bible holds a special place. It is the inspired Word of God; it represents the distilled essence of the Lord's message to us. And it is given to us in a stable, written form that we can always turn to, even when other ways of communicating with the Lord seem to have dried up.
What makes the Bible so special? Why do we call it God's Word? Our church gives a somewhat different answer to that question than any other Christian denomination.
Some churches believe that the Bible is the Word of God because every word in it was dictated by God, and everything said in it is literally true and authoritative. The people who belong to these churches will cling to the literal statements of the Bible even when they are contradicted by everything else we know. The struggle over creation versus evolution is one result of this view of the Bible.
Other churches do not feel the need for a completely literal interpretation of the Bible. They hold various views as to why the Bible should be considered God's Word. Many see it that way largely because the Bible is where we learn about the life of Jesus Christ. While this is certainly true, it leaves the question of what all the rest of those books are doing in the Bible - especially the books of the Old Testament.
Other churches see the Bible as a history of God's interaction with the human race, and as the wisdom of God-fearing people throughout a long period of human history. This view also has its virtues. But there are many other books both in Eastern and Western literature that could be included if that were our criteria: The Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Talmud, the Upanishads... The list could go on and on. We as Christians do not include these books in our Bible.
There has been a persistent sense among Christians throughout the ages since Christ came to earth that the Bible is different from all other books, both sacred and secular. Yet the Christian Church has had a hard time coming up with a clear and unified answer as to why the Bible should hold a unique place in our spiritual lives. This is where, in our church, the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg come in. Swedenborg's writings in no way replace the Bible as the Word of God. But they do give us a new and deeper perspective on the Bible that we would never have discovered if the Lord had not seen fit to reveal it to a person such as Swedenborg who was specially prepared to bring a new message to us from the Lord.
The Bible is not the Word of God primarily based on literal authority, says Swedenborg, nor because it contains the history of God's relationship with humans, nor even because it tells the story of Jesus' life on earth - though all of these are parts of its position as God's Word. Rather, the Bible is the Word of God because it has a continuous, connected spiritual meaning that reaches up through all the deeper levels of human experience right to the Lord Himself. The literal meaning is where the Bible can express its power in our lives, but it is the spiritual meaning within that gives the Bible its holiness and its divine inspiration.
What is this spiritual meaning of the Bible? To understand this, we need to know a little bit about the structure of creation - including our own inner, human structure - as an expression of the nature of God. Our church teaches that there are three basic elements in God: love, wisdom and creative action. As human beings created in the image of God, we have these same parts in ourselves. The universe also expresses, in its own way, these three different aspects of God.
Perhaps we can understand the Bible's deeper meaning most clearly if we take our own inner nature as an example. At the core of our being is what we love. Whatever we love the most, it will be expressed either obviously or subtly in everything we do. This is true whether what we love most is ourselves, or money, or other people, or the Lord. It is love that makes us do the things we do.
However, what we love most is not always expressed outwardly in obvious ways. We have another level of our being that, in a sense, surrounds our love. That is the level of our knowledge, beliefs, understanding, and rationality. We may love money above everything else, but our knowledge of the ways of the world warns us that we will get into trouble if we don't go about getting it in legal ways. So our rational self does its best to keep our love of money flowing through safe channels.
The things that result from the interplay between our love and understanding form the third basic level of our existence: the level of our words and actions. This is what everyone else sees of our life. To make the parallel with the Bible, our words and actions are the "literal meaning" of our lives. And what appears to others does not always give a true impression of what is really inside us.
To use Swedenborg's memorable image, the Bible is like a fully clothed person. Only the person's hands and face are visible to other people. The rest is covered. Of course, most of the time we are able to interact with each other quite well even when all we see of each other is our hands and faces. Similarly, the literal meaning of the Bible has enough of the Lord's truth in it that we can find there the basic teachings we need to live a good and spiritual life.
There is a reason that the "body" of the Bible is covered except for the hands and face. When the Lord told the parable of the sower to a crowd of people, He did not explain its meaning to them. Later, when the disciples asked Him what the parable meant, He began by telling them why He used parables. He said:
You have been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables so that "seeing they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand." (Luke 8:9,10)
Now this is strange. Why wouldn't the Lord have wanted all the people to perceive and understand the meaning of His words?
The analogy to our body and its clothing is helpful. While we are out among the people in our community, we do not go naked. This is not because there is something wrong with the human body - no, our body was created pure and perfect by God. Rather, we wear clothing because we need its protection when we are out and about. Yes, we need its protection from the weather, and often from things that would hurt our skin as we work and play. But perhaps more than that, we need clothing to protect us from the words and actions of people who would take advantage of us if our bodies were unclothed and unprotected.
Similarly, the Lord veiled the Word in a clothing of literal history, stories, poetry, and prophecies to protect its deep and sacred purposes. There is a power in the truth - a power to sway people's minds and hearts. In the hands of the wrong people, that power becomes a power for destructiveness. So to protect the truth, the Lord veils most of it over, leaving only the hands and face bare so that anyone, in any state of mind, can grasp at least some of it if he or she is willing.
What about those of us who do not want to misuse the truth, but who want it in order to correct our faults so that we can be more loving and caring people? When this is the source of our desire for truth, the veils that cover the deeper meanings within the Bible can be gradually removed for us as we are ready. We must be ready not only to understand the truth we find there, but to use it in our lives. Then the knowledge of spiritual meanings that we find in Swedenborg's writings can begin to unlock for us the deeper levels of meaning with the Bible.
Swedenborg describes three basic levels of meaning within the Bible. These levels correspond to the levels of our being described above. The deepest level of meaning within the Bible is the heavenly (or "celestial") meaning. It speaks directly to the love within us, and it speaks primarily of the Lord. The next level is what Swedenborg calls the "spiritual" meaning. It speaks more to our understanding and beliefs, and relates especially to the way we as individuals grow and develop spiritually. Swedenborg gives several names to the lowest of the three deeper meanings within the Bible. Sometimes he calls it the "natural" meaning. In other places, he calls it the "internal historical" meaning, because it tells of the spiritual history of the human race. In other words, it tells about our relationship with God over the ages, and how that has been expressed in our societal patterns of living.
All of these levels of meaning are available to us. However, the one that, for most of us, most of the time, is most helpful is the spiritual meaning. This is the meaning that tells how we as individuals are born, grow up, and mature as spiritual beings. In a sense, it is a map or guidebook for spiritual living. It shows us where we are on our spiritual journey, and what steps we need to take next along the path. If we search for this meaning in the Bible with the help of the teachings of our church, we will find an inexhaustible supply of wisdom from the Lord, which will guide us in our daily lives.
It is worth repeating, though, that this inspiration will come to us only if we go to the Bible to learn how to live and care for each other. If we have any other motivation - such as convincing people how "spiritual" we are so that they will look up to us - the deeper, spiritual meanings will be veiled from our sight. We may think we see them for a short time, but soon nothing but dead words will be left.
This is the message contained in the parable of the sower. Sometimes the seed falls on the path and is trampled underfoot, neglected in the busyness of our lives; other times it falls on rocky ground and grows quickly at first, but then withers in the sun of adversity because its spiritual roots are shallow; other times it grows, only to be choked out by the thorns of material concerns.
When we look to the Word of God from a good and honest heart, then its deeper meanings will grow in us and bear fruit. Only when our heart is filled with love for each other and for the Lord can the veils that hide the deeper meanings of the Bible from our sight be removed for us. This is the Bible that has been lost over the ages, but now can be found for each one of us if we approach it with a loving heart.
The beauty of our church's teaching about the Bible is that it opens up the deep and fertile soil of spiritual meaning within the Bible so that our inner roots can row stronger and deeper with each passing year. We do not need to get drawn into arguments over the literal or historical accuracy of the Bible. We have available to us a much more precious treasure. It is the treasure of the seed of spiritual truth that can grow in our lives until we are strong and fruitful in the loving work of the Lord. Amen.
Read this sermon's prequel: