The Swedenborg Heresy – Notes on the Canon

I was reading the blog of the lovely Lee Woofenden, where he describes the incredibly offensive and extremely heretical beliefs of Emanuel Swedenborg; an ex-Lutheran apostate who is currently roasting in Hell at this very moment. Lee is destined for the very same hellfire on account of his prideful rejection of the Gospel promise. I look forward to watching them both roast. Jokes aside, I took some notes while reading his latest post and figured I’d neaten them up and wack them on the blog.

Response

Lee opens with the following:

Most Christians don’t think too much about where the Bible came from. They just hold a book in their hands, maybe read it, and believe that this book was given by God.

It’s very interesting that he raises this question of where the bible came from. This was one of the key things that drove me back to Catholicism in 2014. The Catholic church had an actual answer as to why the bible has authority and inspiration, whereas the protestants did not.

Lee goes on to claim that the Orthodox biblical canon includes 79 books. This is news to me. I was under the impression that the Orthodox bible had 76 books. I wonder what books Lee is referring to here, and where he got this statistic.

Lee says the following:

You see, there was no pronouncement from God as to which books should be in the Bible.

This point is absolutely key. Under Protestant schemas, it is completely true. This is why Protestants sometimes talk about “A fallible collection of infallible books”, which I personally find to be epistemologically laughable, but I am open to hearing more; the fact that I disagree with it probably just means that I don’t understand it.

In any case, under the Catholic understanding, God actually did tell us which books belong in the bible. He did this through the dogmas and canons of the Catholic church (in this particular case, the divine and infallible magisterial pronouncements of the Council of Trent).

And the church councils of the different branches of Christianity didn’t agree with one another about which books should be included in the Bible.

This is also true. There has never been a single universally agreed upon scriptural canon. This scandalised me during my early days as a Christian. As an evangelical my community was telling me to base my entire life and all of my beliefs on what “the bible” says. But what even is “the bible”? There were a thousand different translations and canons to chose from. For such an important question, evangelicals don’t tend to be forthcoming with robust answers and apologetics. They often say things like “It’s the message that matters, not the actual words”, but then they staunchly deny that the books of the deuterocanon have any authority or inspiration, even when they are saying the same thing as the other canonical books. The irrationality of it all bugged me to no end.

Lee continues to discuss Swedenborg’s interesting and fanciful canon of scripture (Which reduces the New Testament to simply the four gospels and the book of the apocalypse). He then makes the following interesting statement:

Protestants commonly believe that Paul’s writings are all about establishing faith alone as the key doctrine of Christianity. But the simple fact of the matter is Paul never even used the term “faith alone,” let alone taught it.

I find this amusing. Lee is himself a staunch protestant, even though he firmly denies this obvious fact. But considering that he does not identify as a protestant, it is amusing for him to make such a sweeping statement as “Protestants commonly believe …”. What would he know? He’s supposedly not a protestant, so he doesn’t have the authority to speak on their behalf.

In any case, while it is true that Paul never said “Faith alone”, the original Lutheran “Sola Fide” doctrine is nevertheless definitely embedded in all of his letters. I don’t think Lee actually understands what “Faith alone” implies. Then again this is entirely forgivable as most evangelicals don’t understand it either. Most evangelicals take “Faith alone” to mean “All I have to do to be saved is believe and I don’t have to do any good works”, which is a Satanic perversion of the original doctrine. Lee has unquestioningly adopted this understanding of the doctrine. The original Sola Fide is Gospel, good news. It says that we don’t need to do anything in order to be saved; we don’t even need to believe! Yet despite that, when you are living your life under faith, you can’t help but overflow with love and good works. Hear these beautiful words from Luther:

Faith is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1). It kills the old Adam and makes altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.

Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. And so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace. And thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools.

Therefore, pray to God to work faith in you. Else you will remain forever without faith, whatever you think or do. (Preface to Commentary on Romans; cf. “On the Freedom of the Christian“)

Whereas Lee seems to be saying on his blog that we earn our salvation by good works. I don’t mean to put words in his mouth, but this is honestly the vibe that I get when I read his writings.

Now we can finally begin to rehabilitate the letters of Paul. Now we can rescue them from the hands of those “Christian” theologians who have twisted and distorted them for so long. Now we can begin to understand that Paul’s main argument when he was asserting that we are saved or justified by faith without the works of the Law was that Christians no longer need to be observant Jews in order to be saved by their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

In my reading, Paul’s thrust doesn’t seem to be merely that gentile believers don’t have to convert to Judaism (although this is definitely true). The key point of Paul seems to be that we don’t have to “do” anything in order to be saved. Paul is powerfully preaching a message of Sola Gratia, grace alone. He is preaching a message of antinomianism. As Luther mentioned in the earlier quote, this doesn’t make good works unnecessary or superfluous, but instead is the way in which we receive the strength and power to perform the works.

Conclusion

It’s interesting to read through Lee’s blog and learn more about Swedenborgian Christianity. I look forward to reading some of Swedenborg’s writings in the future. It still seems clear to me that Lee has entirely missed the point of the Gospel, however I look forward to reading more of his “spiritual insights” in future.

6 thoughts on “The Swedenborg Heresy – Notes on the Canon

  1. Hi Alex,

    Haha! But my favorite is still one of my regular readers who (with tongue firmly in cheek) called me “a Woof in sheep’s clothing.”

    Thanks for the commentary and link back to my article. A few quick responses:

    I am not sure how it is “an obvious fact” that I am “a staunch Protestant,” considering that I reject all of the key doctrines of Protestantism, including the Trinity of Persons, justification by faith alone, penal substitution, and imputed merit. On what basis are you making this weird statement? Is it just, “He’s not Catholic, and he’s not Orthodox, so he must be Protestant?” Are Mormons also “obviously staunch Protestants”? What about Jehovah’s Witnesses? What about Wiccans? How far afield does one have to go in order to be “not Protestant” in your view?

    If you spend much time reading my blog, you’ll also find that I reject the notion that we can earn salvation by good works. Considering that we can do good works only by the power of the Lord working in us, they earn us nothing, they merit us nothing. He is the vine, we are the branches. Without him, we can do nothing. Saving good works are done because the Lord commands us to do them, because it’s the right thing to do, and because we love God and the neighbor. There is no way any human can earn salvation, by faith, by good works, or by anything else. See Luke 17:7-10.

    About the 79 books, there are a number of different canons in Eastern and Oriental Christianity. The 79 books is the canon of the Greek Orthodox Church, as I said in the article.

    But mostly, I’m just confused now. You say that you returned to Catholicism. Yet you seem to still accept, or at least respect, key Protestant doctrines that conflict with Catholic doctrine such as sola fide and sola gratia. You seem to still think that Martin Luther was a great theologian, which I suspect is not the reigning Catholic view of Luther. You seem to still read the letters of Paul through a solfidian lens. And you still seem to think in terms of common unbiblical Protestant red herrings such as the idea that good works are necessarily meritorious and therefore not saving, and that good works are the fruits of faith.

    Are you sure you’re not a Protestant in Catholic’s clothing? 😛

    • Hey Lee, Thanks for stopping by again 🙂

      I’m definitely being tongue in cheek when I call you a protestant. As you’ve correctly identified, Protestantism generally implies believing in sola scriptura (loosely defined as “the bible is the only authority”), but you don’t affirm that.

      However broadly speaking you can divide the christian world into two camps: 1. Apostolic/Traditional/Historical Christianity, and then 2. Protestants/everyone else. You definitely fall under the “Protestant” camp according to this division. Jehovas witnesses, mormons as well. probably not wiccans tho.

      I like that you affirm that neither faith nor works can earn salvation. And it’s reassuring to hear you say that good works do not earn salvation. I suspected that’s what you believe, but I just wasn’t getting that vibe as I read your blog. My questions for you then, are 1. What do I have to do to be saved? and 2. What do I have to do to be elect? and 3. Am I saved? Am I elect? Why or why not? How do you know?

      Apologies for asking you to do the hard work for me, but are you able to list what those extra 13 books are in the Greek canon? I would look it up myself but I have to run to church in 5 minutes. I was just surprised cause I was under the impression all of the eastern orthodox churches had 76 books in their canon except for the russians, who include one extra book. A 79 book canon is news to me, so i’m just curious to know what the actual books in question are.

      hahaha, yes I am a protestant. But I’m also a Catholic. (And a mulsim, and a hindu, and I’m even about to convert to mormonism!). I do the saint paul thing, “become all things to all people”.

      So I understand the original sola fide. I’ve mentioned a few times here and elsewhere how you seem to be attacking the common evangelical caricature of sola fide (which is indeed utter bullshit). However I don’t think any of your criticisms apply to the original lutheran one. I can highly recommend this article about it all:

      https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/preaching-gospel-as-gospel-or-why-the-orthodox-catholic-and-protestant-churches-need-the-reformation/

      They key point is that salvation is an unconditional promise, and an unconditional promise can only be received by faith, not by works. therefore we have a doctrine of “sola fide”. But that’s very different to the evangelical thing where they reckon “I am saved because I believe in Jesus”. This is heresy of the most damnable kind.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

      • Hi Alex,

        A better way to divide the Christian world is between those that adopted the satisfaction theory of atonement, which is Western Christianity, encompassing Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and those that never abandoned classical atonement theory, which is Eastern Christianity and many of the non-conforming Christian sects.

        Satisfaction theory began with Anselm within Catholicism not long after the Great Schism. It was then developed by Abelard and Aquinas into the version of satisfaction theory that is still held to in Catholicism today. Satisfaction theory subsequently continued into Catholicism’s own “Great Schism,” Protestantism, in the penal substitution variety developed by the early Protestant theologians

        Eastern Christianity remained with the classical Christus Victor and ransom theories that were the primary theories of salvation in all of Christianity for its first 1,000 years.

        By this division, I am in the Eastern and classical Christian camp. Swedenborgian soteriology is generally consonant with the soteriology that obtained in Christianity for its first 1,000 years, and that still obtains in Eastern Christianity.

        You, being a Protestant Catholic, belong in the division of Christianity that abandoned classical atonement theory for the newer satisfaction theory that was developed within Western Christianity at the beginning of the second millennium of Christianity. That’s why it is not surprising that your soteriology is a mix of Catholic and Protestant. They’re not all that different, except that Protestantism, with its espousal of justification by faith alone, takes satisfaction theory’s fallacious “you don’t have to do anything, because Jesus did it all for you” premise to its logical conclusion, which Catholicism has never quite been able to bring itself to do.

        Another way of saying this is that Protestant soteriology is simply the final stage of the new satisfaction theory of atonement that was developed within Catholicism after the Great Schism.

        Protestantism is simply a further development (I would say devolution) of Catholicism. The two are in the same camp within Christianity as a whole, even though they fought each other bitterly following their schism. Sibling rivalry is the worst!

        I am a classical Christian, having never adopted the newer theories that were developed within Catholicism and Protestantism after the Great Schism. You’re a . . . newfangled Christian. 😀

        • I actually lean heavily eastward too. I prefer the older theories of atonement like ransom and christus victor.

          I still think you’re not fully getting the point of sola fide. Commonly it is understood to mean “there is exactly one thing that I need to do: believe in jesus”. Whereas the original sola fide was more like “there is absolutely nothing I need to do. God just flat out promises me salvation and I trust him when he does that”

          My soteriology is inclusive and antinomian. We don’t have to do anything whatsoever in order to be saved. However as luther pointed out, once you’re saved, you can’t help but overflow with love and good works. That love and those good works are almost the definition of salvation!

          Btw, I’m really keen to get deep into swedenborg and learn more. I’m currently rock bottom in terms of my finances, but If you donate me some money, I promise you i will use it to buy a copy of whatever of his books you recommend. (Personally i’m interested in “heaven and hell”). He sounds like a deep thinker and interesting character, and I would really love to learn more. This is why i’ve started following your blog. This post about his biblical canon was fascinating! Keep writing good stuff 🙂

          I know we’ve butt heads before, but I have nothing but good will towards you, and enjoy reading your blog

          lots of love,

          • Hi Alex,

            Thanks.

            Assuming you’re not so “apostolic” that you eschew digital media, and given that you clearly have some sort of computerized conveyance for information, rock-bottom finances are no object in reading Swedenborg. All of his books are available free online.

            Here are links to where you can download Heaven and Hell and True Christianity volumes 1 and 2 in free ePub versions. (I recommend the Deluxe Editions with the scholarly introductions and annotations, not the Portable Editions, which have only the English translation of Swedenborg’s text.)

            Heaven and Hell, New Century Edition

            True Christianity volume 1, New Century Edition

            True Christianity volume 2, New Century Edition

            You can also read the whole shebang section by section, in many different translations plus the original Latin, and with much associated commentary, at this website:

            New Christian Bible Study

            If you’re looking for anything else Swedenborg-related, let me know, and I’ll help you to avoid a wild goose chase.

          • Thanks so much for this!

            I do prefer physical books, but I have an old ipad that can read online material fairly comfortably, so these links will help a lot. When I get around to it, I’ll write up my impressions. If I have any questions I’ll contact you 🙂

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