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Swedenborgianism, or the New Church, is a religious movement based on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). My understanding is that he saw a series of visions, and based on what he learned in these visions and his interpretation of the Bible, he developed a system of theology that differs on some points from traditional Christianity.

What do Protestants think of this system? I'm most interested in points of disagreement, so, what is an overview of Protestant critiques of Swedenborgianism?

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Protestant critiques of Swedenborgianism first appeared shortly after the publications of his spiritual writings in the middle of the 18th century. Protestant theologians focused most closely on his teachings and those of his followers through the 19th century, and since then have afforded Swedenborgianism relatively little attention.1

The primary Protestant critiques of Swedenborgianism can be grouped into several categories:

  • The source and nature of Swedenborg's visions
  • Inspiration and interpretation of the Bible
  • The doctrines of the nature of God, salvation, and the afterlife

Swedenborg's visions

Source of the visions

The source of Swedenborg's visions is a matter of some debate within Protestantism, though they are universally scorned. Some, beginning with Swedenborg's contemporary, John Wesley, attributed the visions to insanity: Wesley wrote in his journal that Swedenborg was "one of the most ingenious, lively, and entertaining madmen that ever set pen to paper" and that his dreams were "remote both from Scripture and common sense."2

More modern treatments, however, often attribute the visions to the occult. Walter Martin and Ravi Zacharias admit that "no one can reasonably say that Swedenborg was insane," but instead call him a "medium" and "thoroughgoing spiritist," and provide several examples of "communication with the spirit world in direct violation of the express commands of Scripture."3 John Ankerberg and John Weldon say that he "fell prey to deceiving spirits" and ignored scriptural warnings against spirit contact because he "believed 'good' spirits had taught him the truth."4

Nature of the visions

It naturally follows from the preceding that Protestants view the alleged supernatural revelation of Swedenborg as novel and false. A. H. Strong argues that "all new communications which would contradict or supersede" Scripture, including Swedenborg's, must be tested against God's Word according to 1 John 4:1.5 He also suggests the test of miraculous signs, and finds that "all so-called new prophecy, from Montanus to Swedenborg, proves its own falsity by its lack of attesting miracles."6

A. A. Hodge likewise finds that Swedenborgianism lacks the "'signs' of a supernatural revelation." Instead, it and other similar "pretended revelations of the Spirit," like Mormonism, "are inconsistent with Scripture truth, directly oppose the authority of Scripture and teach bad morals."7 Charles Hodge finds a striking similarity between revelation in Islam and Swedenborgianism: "as to the evidence, on which they ask us to receive their professed revelation, there is very little difference in principle."8

Bible

Canon

Swedenborg's Protestant critics attack him and his followers for what they regard as a failure to properly regard the traditional Bible. Strong and others strenuously object to his "rejection of nearly one half the Bible (Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and the whole of the N. T. except the Gospels and the Apocalypse)."9 After examining the concept of "internal sense" promoted by Swedenborg as the basis for selection, Hodge instead argues that:

The authority of Swedenborg, capriciously exercised, is the true cause of rejecting these books. [...] The truth is, this rejection of thirty-two books is an open and arbitrary act of infidelity; and no reason can be given why we may not upon like grounds renounce the whole word of God.10

Furthermore, Hodge finds that Swedenborg's followers, for practical purposes, put Swedenborg's "writings before those of the prophets" of the Old Testament.11 Martin and Zacharias claim that "Swedenborg is consistently and energetically refuted by the epistles of Paul, particularly, the book of Romans, chapters 5 through 8, which Swedenborg detested with abject horror," and that this is the real basis for rejecting the epistles: "He began with the basic assumption that he was right, and that the apostle Paul was wrong!"12

Interpretation

Martin and Zacharias call Swedenborg's method of exegesis "a spiritual mode of interpreting Scripture."13 Church historian Philip Schaff calls his allegorizing "arbitrary and fanciful, often ingenious, often absurd," going "further than Philo and Origen in their allegorical method."14 Analyzing some examples of Swedenborg's "Science of Correspondence," Hodge finds that "every thing in scripture is figurative" and through it "the scriptures are made to mean any thing that the fancy of man can invent."15

Schaff notes that Swedenborg's "new revelation and theory of Scripture interpretation [...] exerted no influence on the regular course of historical development," and mercilessly states why:

The exegesis of Swedenborg is original, but critically and theologically worthless, and hence ignored in commentaries.14

Doctrine

In commenting generally on Swedenborg's doctrine, John Wesley calls it "quite unproved, quite precarious from beginning to end" and "in many instances [...] contradictory to Scripture, to reason, and to itself."16 Hodge calls the writings of Swedenborgianism a "labyrinth":

To the sober-minded who wish evidence before faith, who exercise their judgments, and are governed by any laws of reasoning, or rules of interpretation, we can conceive of nothing more unpleasant than an attempt to read, digest or understand the doctrine. We have called it above "a system," but we used the term for want of a better. It is a maze, a howling wilderness, a dreary waste of confusion and impiety.17

The most commonly cited examples of doctrinal discrepancy are in regards to the nature of God, particularly the Trinity and God's method of creation; atonement and justification; and the afterlife.

Nature of God

Louis Berkhof and John Frame, two recent systematic theologians, spare Swedenborg little notice in their summaries of the doctrine of the Trinity. Frame dismisses him as a thinker "whose thought was governed more by speculation than by Scripture,"18 and like Frame, Berkhof calls Swedenborg a Modalist:

Others followed the way pointed out by Sabellius by teaching a species of Modalism, as, for instance, Emanuel Swedenborg, who held that the eternal God-man became flesh in the Son, and operated through the Holy Spirit.19

Hodge likewise sees similarity in the views of Sabellius and Swedenborg: "There is indeed considerable variation in the language used, but the substance seems to us to be the same."20 A. H. Strong summarizes Swedenborg's view as "that God exists in the shape of a man—an anthropomorphism of which the making of idols is only a grosser and more barbarous form."21

Regarding the creation of the world, Berkhof and Strong liken Swedenborg's view to that of the Syrian Gnostics: "that the universe is of the same substance of God"22 and that "[creation] originated by emanation out of the divine substance."23 Hodge cites Swedenborg's rejection of traditional creation and finds that he instead "gathered up" the "essential principles of pantheism."24

Atonement and salvation

Charles Hodge summarizes Swedenborg's view of atonement as follows:

Christ’s redemptive work does not consist in his bearing our sins upon the tree, or in making satisfaction to the justice of God for our offences. All idea of such satisfaction Swedenborg rejects. The work of salvation is entirely subjective. Justification is pardon granted on repentance.25

Elsewhere, he writes on the same topic that "doctrines more contrary to those taught by the Apostles we may safely say have never been propagated."26 Hodge also notes that Swedenborgians do not accept the justification by faith, and argues that they "greatly misrepresented" it. Attempting to clarify, he writes:

The Christian world does not hold that the faith, which justifies, is separate from charity, or that it alone exists in the heart [...]. Faith is not meritorious but only instrumental in justification. If Swedenborg had half the information or discernment attributed to him by his followers, he must have known that he was misrepresenting the doctrine of the Christian world.27

Strong, Wesley, and Hodge also criticize the claim that Swedenborgianism is essential to salvation. Strong notes that in Swedenborg's visions, members of the sects that Swedenborg disliked "were in the hells, condemned to everlasting punishment."28 Wesley writes, "and the worst is, he flatly affirms, 'None can go to heaven, who believes three persons in the Godhead.'"29

Heaven, hell, and resurrection

Swedenborg's revelation regarding heaven and hell remind many Protestants of Islam, both in its marked contrast to the revelation of the Bible and in the description itself. On the first point, Archibald Alexander writes:

It is worthy of remark, that although the Scriptures express the joys of heaven, and the miseries of hell, by the strongest figures, they do not enter much into detail, respecting the condition of men, in the future world. There is true wisdom in this silence; because it is a subject, of which we are, at present, incapable, of forming any distinct conceptions. Paul, after being caught up “to paradise, and to the third heaven,” gave no account of what he saw and heard, when he returned. How different is this from the ridiculous description of the seven heavens, by Mohammed; and from the reveries of Emmanuel Swedenborg!30

John Wesley critiqued Swedenborg's view of heaven as "low, grovelling, just suiting a Mahometan paradise" and prone "to sink our conceptions, both of the glory of heaven, and of the inhabitants of it."31 Wesley's criticism of the doctrine of hell followed similar lines:

And his account of hell leaves nothing terrible in it; for, first, he quenches the unquenchable fire. He assures us there is no fire there [...]. And, secondly, he informs you, that all the damned enjoy their favourite pleasures. He that delights in filth is to have his filth; yea, and his harlot too!31

Regarding Swedenborg's doctrine of resurrection, Hodge writes that "it is not a resurrection at all";32 instead, "At death the outer body is laid aside, and the soul thereafter acts through the ethereal or spiritual vestment. This is the only resurrection which Swedenborg admitted. There is no rising again of the bodies laid in the grave."25 Martin and Zacharias note that this precludes the future "resurrection of both the just and the unjust [...] in conjunction with the 'appearing of the glory of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ'"33 that they see clearly taught in the book of Revelation.

Summary

Martin and Zacharias summarize Swedenborgianism by calling it "outside the pale of Christian theology [...] not only concerning the Canon, but concerning such doctrines as the nature of God, the holy Trinity, the atonement of Jesus Christ, and the doctrines of salvation and resurrection."34 In closing, they write:

The great tragedy of Emanuel Swedenborg is that he would not submit himself and his great mind to the discipline of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures. Because of this, and because of his deliberated preoccupation with spiritism and the occult, in direct disobedience to the express teachings of God, he was despoiled, even as Paul had warned [Colossians 2:8–9]. He was deceived by dreams and visions and the machinations of him whom the Scriptures describe as the "spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience" (Ephesians 2:2b).35


References:

Notes:

  1. A. A. Hodge, Charles Hodge, Archibald Alexander, and A. H. Strong all wrote in the late 19th century or earlier. My searches indicate that Swedenborg is notably absent from treatments like Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology (1994), H. Orton Wiley's Christian Theology (1940), J. Rodman William's Renewal Theology (1996), and Gregg R. Allison's Historical Theology (2011). He merits extremely brief mention in John Frame's Systematic Theology (2013) and, rather surprisingly, William Shedd's History of Christian Doctrine (1863).
  2. Wesley, Journals
  3. Martin and Zacharias, 634
  4. Ankerberg and Weldon, 171–72
  5. Strong, I: 32
  6. Strong, II: 712
  7. Hodge, A. A., 60–61
  8. Hodge, C., ed., 1848: 349–50
  9. Strong, I: 207
  10. Hodge, C., ed., 1848: 335–36
  11. Hodge, C., ed., 1848: 338
  12. Martin and Zacharias, 638
  13. Martin and Zacharias, 633
  14. Schaff, 226–27
  15. Hodge, C., ed., 1848: 346–48
  16. Wesley, Works, IV: 149
  17. Hodge, C., ed., 1848: 350–51
  18. Frame, 476
  19. Berkhof, 1.1.8.A
  20. Hodge, C., ed. 1848: 340
  21. Strong, I: 251
  22. Strong, II: 383
  23. Berkhof, 1.2.3.C.4
  24. Hodge, C., ed., 1870: 214
  25. Hodge, C. 3.3.8
  26. Hodge, C., ed., 1848: 341
  27. Hodge, C., ed., 1848: 342
  28. Strong, II: 386
  29. Wesley, Works, IV: 149. He appears to be quoting Swedenborg's Doctrine of the Lord. Hodge remarks similarly in 1848: 352.
  30. Alexander, 191
  31. Wesley, Works, IV: 149–50
  32. Hodge, C., ed., 1848: 345
  33. Martin and Zacharias, 640
  34. Martin and Zacharias, 632
  35. Martin and Zacharias, 641
  • 1
    This answer might have the most citations of any on this site. +1 for doing all that research! – El'endia Starman Aug 18 '15 at 20:29
  • Despite the references, they are full of inaccurate misrepresentations and outright falsehoods. This is actually typical of other Protestant critiques I have seen, who often create straw man arguments in their critique. It actually began in the 18th century when they tried to censor Swedenborg. – Doug Webber Sep 17 '15 at 14:20
  • This answer provides a good summary of Protestant critiques of Swedenborg and his teachings, as the question asked. The fact that the critiques themselves were based on a rather shallow acquaintance with Swedenborg's life and teachings and on prejudice against him due to his especially harsh critique of Protestant doctrine, and are therefore for the most part mistaken and false in their assertions, does not change the fact that these are the critiques that Protestants have made against Swedenborg and his teachings. Although the critiques themselves are shoddy, this is a good summary of them. – Lee Woofenden Sep 29 '15 at 2:34
  • The above is why I give this answer +1 even though almost every significant point made in the covered critiques is false. – Lee Woofenden Sep 29 '15 at 2:35
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There is one thing that Protestants dislike the most about Swedenborg: the revelations, and his numerous quotations from scripture, discount and disprove that one is saved by faith alone, separate from works of charity. Since that is the foundation of 16th century Protestant theology, everything else they say to attack Swedenborg is a straw man's argument. Swedenborg shows that the apostle Paul was talking either of the works of external Jewish rituals such as circumcision, or self-meritorious works. He was not speaking of works of charity, for love in its essence is faith, not merely believing something is true.

Source of the Visions

As Swedenborg quotes scripture after scripture to prove the point, they will not argue against the theology but create a straw man: that he was an occultist and spoke with demons. What they fail to mention is that evil spirits do not declare Jesus Christ is Divine, and saved the human race. No demon or evil spirit would say that. His works are Christian and diametrically opposed to those who seek answers from spirits, and he warns against lying spirits. Moreover, he drew not a single teaching from any spirit or angel, but from the Lord alone while reading the Word:

"That the Lord manifested Himself before me His servant, and sent me to this office, and that He afterward opened the sight of my spirit, and so has admitted me into the spiritual world, and has granted to me to see the heavens and the hells, also to converse with angels and spirits, and this now continuously for many years, I testify in truth; likewise, that from the first day of that call I have not received any thing which pertains to the doctrines of that church from any angel, but from the Lord alone while I read the Word." (True Christian Religion, n. 779)

It is a bit odd that some, such as Hodge, require a sign or miracle as proof of a vision. Swedenborg stated that miracles should not be sought, but one should examine the teachings or revelations themselves from examining scripture, and approaching the Lord alone. There have been other Christian visionaries and they did not show other signs of miracles.

Canon of the Bible

Protestants attack Swedenborg for distinguishing which books of the Bible are Divinely inspired, and which ones are not. The selection is not arbitrary: any book which is written by symbolic correspondence, in a series, is Divinely inspired. Each literal word must have a higher spiritual meaning behind it. Other works are included for teaching doctrine. If one examines the canon of inspired books of the Old Testament, it closely matches the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, which is divided between the Law (Torah), the Prophets, the Psalms and the Writings. Even Jesus followed this division of scripture (see Luke 24:44). Protestants are not familiar with this division since most modern Bibles follow the order of the Greek Septuagint, in which these books are mixed together.

The portion that Swedenborg says is not Divinely inspired is what the Jews classified as the "Writings", or Hebrew Ketuvim. There are three exceptions: the Psalms, Lamentations, and the book of Daniel are Divinely inspired, even though made part of the Ketuvim in Jewish bibles.

However, what Protestants take most exception to is that in the New Testament, Swedenborg was shown that only the Gospels and book of Revelation are Divinely inspired. As Protestants make the doctrine of justification by faith alone the central point of their theology based on the writings of Paul, this is like taking the rug from underneath their feet. However Swedenborg never said Paul was "wrong", but rather Protestants have misinterpreted his writings, as the Catholics will also point out. Moreover, in Swedenborg's private diary he makes clear that the writings of Paul were "Divinely influenced," but not "Divinely inspired" in the same way that the Gospels and book of Revelation are. Unfortunately, this is not well known to most people.

Protestants who characterize this as "capriciously exercised" and an "arbitrary act of infidelity" have clearly not examined Swedenborg's detailed analysis of scripture itself, showing the different levels of inspiration in the style of the words among the different books.

Interpretation of Scripture

Protestants will criticize Swedenborg for not being a literalist when interpreting scripture, and tend to be opposed to anything that suggests that scripture is symbolic in nature. This is because they tend to follow a "Biblical literalism" where everything is literally true. Swedenborg's interpretation is comprehensive, stating that the words of scripture are both literal and symbolic, with multiple levels of meaning. An example of this are the parables of Jesus. Far from being arbitrary, it is highly systematic. Each interpretation is supported by countless references to other scriptural passages.

Protestants who characterize it as "unproven" clearly have not read the proof contained in the multi-volume work, Heavenly Arcana (aka Arcana Coelestia). Protestants can point to no theologian or work that proves that scripture is Divinely inspired. Far from being a "labyrinth" or confusing, all of the theology is based on very simple principles: that God is one, and that he is love and truth itself. All of scripture, in the spiritual sense, speaks of the concepts of the two principles of love and truth. Swedenborg does not go against scripture, but rather supports it in a very remarkable way.

Nature of God

Protestants will often compare the theology of God as similar to Sabellianism or Modalism. It is different from either. Simply put, it declares that God is one person in Jesus Christ. As this goes against the definition of God as three distinct persons, as invented in the Nicene Creed of the fourth century A.D., they will again vehemently oppose the writings of Swedenborg. Swedenborg does not deny the Trinity, but rather defines the Trinity as the Divine itself, the Divine human (the Son) and the Divine proceeding (the Holy Spirit). Swedenborg shows that the theology of three distinct persons led to the theology of faith separate from charity. This again, is the foundation stone of much of Protestant theology.

Creation

Some Protestants have mischaracterized Swedenborg's description of creation as "pantheism," which is the view that creation is of the same substance as God. This is a blatant falsehood, or a complete misunderstanding of what Swedenborg was shown of creation. Creation is distinct from the Divine. Only God is the source of life, and any created being is only a recipient of life. Far from being primitive like the Syrian Gnostics, long before Einstein Swedenborg said that before creation there was no time and space. Modern theories of physics has actually confirmed this: before the 'Big Bang' there was no time and space. According to the visions of Swedenborg, the material universe was preceded by the spiritual world where there is no time and space, and was created from Divine order.

Atonement and Salvation

The revelations of Swedenborg indeed denies the theology of "vicarious atonement," which is the theological teaching of both Catholics and Protestants. As this again is the foundation of Protestant theology, they will attack it and label it as "Swedenborgian." However what they fail to realize is that the theology of vicarious atonement was not known in Catholic and Protestant circles until the 11th century A.D. Moreover, the Orthodox Church does not follow the theory of "vicarious atonement," but rather believe that Jesus saved humanity by conquering sin and hell in his human form. This view is now known as "Christus Victor," and is the doctrine that is spelled out in more detail in the theology of Swedenborg's writings. Far from being "Swedenborgian," it actually follows the teaching of the Orthodox church, which preceded both the Catholic and Protestant churches. This is completely unknown to most Protestants.

As for the statement "Strong, Wesley, and Hodge also criticize the claim that Swedenborgianism is essential to salvation." This again is a complete falsehood, or a straw man argument - nothing of this sort was taught by Swedenborg.

Heaven and Hell

There is no account more detailed of heaven and hell than in the visions of Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed to have had a full waking vision of them over a period of 27 years. He describes in detail the three heavens seen in the vision of Paul. It bears absolutely no similarity whatsoever to the sparse description of heaven by Mohammed in the Quran. This again, is a blatant falsehood by certain Protestants, or a straw man argument perhaps appealing to prejudice against Islam.

Swedenborg's visions were far ahead of their time - many of the things he saw has been confirmed by those who have had a Near Death Experience, so the criticisms in this area are those that were before the 20th century before the NDE experience was well known. This is probably now more of a minor issue among Protestant theologians, as the Near Death Experience has now become more well known among mainstream Christians.

Why the Criticism?

In the 18th century, Swedenborg makes it clear in his visions why Protestants would utterly oppose and attack the revelations of the New Church: the declaration that God is one in person, that one must love God according to His commandments, that one must repent from sins to be saved, is directly opposed to the faith of a trinity of three persons, vicarious atonement, and justification by faith alone. This attack on the New Church is spelled out in his exegesis of the book of Revelation, where it is shown that the Protestant faith of the 16th century, which makes faith a matter of belief alone without reforming the life by repentance, is in fact the "false prophet" which appears like a lamb but "spoke as the dragon." Given this unfavorable opinion of the Protestant theology, it is no surprise to see these kinds of attacks, many containing falsehoods and mischaracterizations. Similar to the Protestants, Swedenborg does identify the woman of Babylon as the priesthood of the Catholic church, which added many traditions to Christianity that were not part of the original gospel. Despite this, as Catholics do not separate faith from charity, they were more likely to be receptive of these revelations of Christianity more so than the Protestants.

Swedenborg gives a systematic theology that is supported by numerous references to scripture. Thus Protestant works of theology may find it easier to censor or not mention the theology, as it is diametrically opposed to their own theological views.

  • 2
    I downvoted because this is less an overview of Protestant criticisms and more a defense against Protestant criticisms, which are, incidentally, painted with broad strokes. – El'endia Starman Sep 15 '15 at 3:37
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    @Doug You could, however, ask a question such as "How do Swendenborgian churches respond to Protestant critiques" and answer it yourself. Self answers are very much allowed. – ThaddeusB Sep 15 '15 at 3:56
  • @El'endiaStarman Yes, this answer does serve as a defense against Protestant criticisms. But it also provides an overview of Protestant critiques of Swedenborgianism from a Swedenborgian perspective. The currently top-voted answer does sound more objective. However, the critiques themselves that it presents are full of mischaracterization and much outright ignorance about what Swedenborg taught. Having a Swedenborgian perspective on the Protestant critiques provides some correction to those mischaracterizations, and therefore some balance in the answers to the question. – Lee Woofenden Sep 15 '15 at 4:12
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    There is one thing that Protestants dislike the most about Swedenborg: the revelations, and his numerous quotations from scripture, discount and disprove that one is saved by faith alone, separate from works of charity. No, I think the biggest concern Protestants have is his doctrine of God. There have been large debates within Protestantism since the reformation until now over soteriology, such as the recent debate over the New Perspective on Paul, and there are Protestants now who effectively deny faith alone. If that was Swedenborg's major concern, not the Trinity, then he'd be accepted. – curiousdannii Sep 15 '15 at 5:08
  • Protestants critique the New Church on the basis of three things: the definition of the Trinity, vicarious atonement, and faith separate from charity (which were mentioned). But it is their defense of the latter which causes the critiques to be rather vicious and unfair (I have seen others). Defense of the Nicene Creed is not specific to Protestant churches. NPP theology is a very positive development, but I would surmise most still have the traditional view. – Doug Webber Sep 17 '15 at 14:36

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