For most of my life, I did not read any books of the New Testament other than the gospels and Revelation. Why? Well, the New Church believes – based on passages in Arcana Coelestia and several other works – that in the strictest sense, “The Word” is limited to the books of the Bible that are written in such a way to contain an infinitely deep internal meaning throughout, that is entirely about the Lord and His kingdom. According to Swedenborg, although Acts and the Epistles are true, they do not contain this infinite depth of meaning, and so in that sense do not make up the Word. Still, Swedenborg wrote in a letter that the epistles are “good books for the Church, maintaining the doctrine of charity and its faith as strongly as ever did the Lord Himself in the Gospels and in the Revelation” (Letters 2). And in his last published work, True Christian Religion, Swedenborg freely includes quotes from Acts and the epistles when listing passages from “the Word”; in fact, he sometimes lists only passages from the epistles, making it clear that in some sense, these books are “the Word.”
But still, when I was younger I was nervous about the epistles in particular, because I’d seen quotations from them that seemed to contradict New Church teachings, even though the Writings throughout say that correctly understood, the epistles contain true doctrine. When I sat down and read them all the way through for the first time, I was surprised at how much they did seem to confirm New Church teachings. And since then, the more I’ve read them, the more I’ve seen that they do indeed align with the teachings of the New Church. Rather than fearing them, I’ve come to love them.
One book that helped me enormously in understanding the epistles – or at least, the epistles of Paul – has been The Theology of Paul the Apostle, by James D.G. Dunn. Dunn is universally recognized as one of the world’s foremost living authorities on Paul, so this is not some obscure text by a fringe theologian. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but he demonstrates thoroughly and persuasively, for example, that “the works of the law” which Paul opposed were not moral acts, but the markers of being a Jew; that Paul believed a person must persist in living his faith to attain salvation, and that a person can lose his salvation if he does not do this; that Christ’s death on the cross was not primarily instead of us, but rather that we participate in that death by putting to death sin in our flesh; and even that Paul’s idea of Jesus’s existence from eternity was not existence as a separate person in the Trinity of Persons, but as Wisdom. (Although I think Dunn does affirm a Trinity of Persons as a logical conclusion to be drawn from Scripture as a whole, I believe that he, along with most scholars, recognizes that for the first few centuries of Christianity there was no clear definition of a Trinity as defined in 325 A.D. at the Council of Nicea.)
So, with all that in mind, I’ve decided to start a blog series, going through Acts and the epistles from a New Church perspective. I’m sure there are still passages that I will find difficult to reconcile with others, and to understand – just as a Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox reader would. That’s OK. I’ll be honest with those, and ask for insights. I’ve had enough experiences of thinking, “Oh, no, this contradicts something else I’ve read in the Word,” only to discover a better way of reading it, that it no longer worries me. (For example, the first time I read Hebrews, with all its images of sacrifice, I thought, “Oh no – what if substitutionary atonement is the Biblical teaching?” Since then, reading it more carefully and reading commentaries on it, I’ve come to see it as one of the very best explanations of what the Lord’s sacrifice really means; in fact, it may be my favourite of the epistles.)
I’ve already written a draft blog post on Acts 2, so I’ll be starting this series some time later today.