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Two Sources of Truth - 
Or Two Foundations?

by the Rev. Ormond Odhner

"What is truth?" That, undoubtedly, is the most famous question in history. The Lord did not answer this question of Pilate's directly, although elsewhere in the Word he had already done so

"I am . . . the truth." But at His Second Advent He has given abundant answer. Perhaps the most universally applicable definition of truth given in the Writings is the following: "Truth is the form or quality of good." (HD 24.) Or, as elsewhere stated, "When good is formed so as to be intellectually perceived, it is called truth." (AC 3049.) And again, "Truths . . . are nothing else than goods formed." (AC 4574.) When good - or, if you wish, substitute "love" - when good or love takes form so that you can see it intellectually, that is truth.

With these teachings in mind, I would ask you the question entailed in the title of this address: Are there two sources of truth, nature and the Word; or are there merely two foundations of truth, and only one source, the Word or revelation?

The answer depends, of course, upon what you mean by truth. The Writings themselves use the word "truth" in many different ways. They speak of Divine truth, spiritual truths, rational truths, moral truths, natural truths or the truths of nature, appearances of truth, sensual and scientific truths. Modern dictionaries, not so concerned with theology, define truth as that which is in line with the real state of things, that which is in conformity with fact or reality.

But the Writings, we have seen, define truth as the form of good - as good taking visible form. Is it a truth, then, that two plus two equals four? It is undoubtedly good that it does. Is "Thou shalt not kill" a truth ? It is undoubtedly good that thou shalt not. And if all truth is good taking form; and if, as the Lord taught, there is none good but one, that is, God; then is not all truth, in essence, Divine? Is not a spiritual truth simply the Lord's Divine good or love appearing on the plane of the spiritual? Is not a scientific truth simply the Divine love appearing on the plane of the scientific? And is not even an appearance of truth simply the Divine love as it appears to man in a certain state?

And, in fact, does anyone really see a truth at all unless he sees the Divine good or love within the thing that he is considering? I think not. He may see a fact, but he does not really see a truth. The laws of climate force men to work. That is a fact. But does anyone see truth in this unless he sees that the Lord has mercifully provided that the laws of climate shall force men to work, in order to keep them in a life of use, and thus comparatively free from the influences of the hells ?

That thought, I believe, is what caused one of the former bishops of the General Church to define truth thus: To see natural truth is to see the Lord at work to build and preserve the world of nature; to see moral truth is to see the Lord at work to build and preserve human society; and to see spiritual truth is to see the Lord at work to build and preserve the heavens.

Are there, then, actually two sources of truth, two sources of a sight of the Lord, nature and the Word, or is there only one source, the Word? (I am of course not talking about scientific discoveries: H2O equals water, but who needs revelation to find that out? Revelation is not given to disclose what man can discover on his own. Nor am I even speaking of what the Writings call a natural truth, "Thou shalt not kill." You do not need revelation to learn that, either. The only revelation part about that truth is that it is a Divine truth, and not just a civil or a moral truth.) But is there any other source of truth - any other source of a sight of the Lord's Divine love taking form on the various planes of life - than the Word, and the Word alone?

The teaching in the Writings from which it is sometimes concluded in our church that there are two sources of truth, nature and the Word, is in the Spiritual Diary, nos. 5709 and 5710. The conclusion, which is not the actual teaching, apparently came about from the common practice of forgetting the exact wording of the Writings and then re-wording their teachings in our memories.

It is, nevertheless, a rather strange passage in the Writings, and in one place, in the English, it contains a bad mistranslation, where it has animals drawing conclusions from certain things, whereas the original Latin has men drawing these conclusions. The passage was written after March 30th, 1757, and some time before May 3rd, 1758, thus after all the Arcana had been published, but it is still written in the usual rather obscure and unfinished style of the Diary.

Greatly condensed, it teaches the following. There are two foundations of truth, one from the Word, the other from nature. The foundation from the Word is for heaven and for those who are in the light of heaven. The foundation from nature is for those who are natural and in natural light, "thus for those who have confirmed themselves from the letter of the Word in things not true." But these two foundations of truth agree with one another.

Then comes a rather peculiar teaching, which calls for explanation. We read, "Since sciences have shut up the understanding, therefore science may also open it." The use of the word "science" here is what calls for explanation, and will do so even more later on. By "science" Swedenborg rarely if ever meant science as we know it today - "Science," with a capital "S": biochemistry, astro-physics, endocrinology. By "science" Swedenborg meant knowledge, philosophy, experience, and such of the sciences as we now know them which existed in his day.

We repeat: "Since sciences have shut up the understanding, therefore science may also open it." The number goes on to say that heavenly things must have their foundation in such things as the laws of order in nature, in order that they may be fixed and permanent. Next comes the teaching that because falsities have shut up the intellect, and because all ideas of thought, even false ones, are based upon natural things, therefore natural things must be as a foundation for spiritual things, with those whose ideas are false.

The passage goes on. The Word (apparently as it is in its literal sense) is the foundation itself for those who are in genuine good; but for those who doubt the Word, its internal sense must be laid open by means of natural truths, "by means of which conflicting ideas are thrown off."

Two examples are then given of how the two foundations of truth agree. First, a man may confirm himself against God because he sees the good suffering in poverty, while the evil are exalted to riches and honors by craft. But "natural truth" teaches that worldly riches and honors are not real blessings, both because they tend to lead man away from heaven, and because they come to an end with time, whereas what is from the Lord endures to eternity. Therefore these two foundations of truth agree. Second, there are some people who think that man is like a beast, lives like a beast, and dies like a beast, with no life hereafter. (And here we now quote exactly:)

But science teaches that with man there is an internal and an external, and that the internal can be elevated to God, and consequently (can) think about God, and about those things which belong to heaven ... ; also, that it is able to be affected by Divine things, and so to be conjoined with the Divine, which is eternal; and that which is conjoined with the Divine cannot die.

This scientific, therefore, also conjoins itself with the teachings of the Word.

The passage then closes with the following sentences

In brief, nothing can be founded upon scientifics, except it be previously founded upon the Word. This must be first; the other is only a confirmation from man's scientifics.

There is much to be said about these teachings. To end with, the last two sentences practically contradict all that went before. No truth can be founded upon scientifics unless it first be founded upon the Word. But there are two foundations of truth: nature, for those in the light of the world, and the Word, for those in the light of heaven. But to begin with, is it a natural truth, a truth of nature, that worldly riches and honors are not real blessings, because they tend to lead man away from heaven and because they end with time, whereas what is from the Lord endures to eternity? I suppose that all but the last clause is, provided you believe in heaven. And science as we know it today - "Science" with a capital "S"; science which is able to prove what it says by experiment - does not at all teach that man has an internal and an external; that the internal can be affected with things Divine, and so be conjoined with the Divine, and therefore cannot die. But "science," as Swedenborg used the term - experimental science, knowledge, philosophy, and experience - did, in his day, teach such things. All the great philosophers did. And, I believe, it is scientific and natural truths, in this broad sense of the term, that must be used as a foundation of truth for those who doubt the Word - a foundation to open up for them the internal sense of the Word, which is never in conflict with genuine scientific and natural truths. And, indeed, such a founding of celestial and spiritual truths in natural truths must exist, it is said elsewhere in the Diary, "to the end that order may be perfect." (SD 1531.)

But, as we all know, scientific and natural truths, so-called, prove nothing at all concerning God, nor concerning anything spiritual or eternal, except for him who wants to believe. The atheistic Russian astronauts sneered because they never saw God or heaven as they circled the earth in space. As our passage taught,

Nothing can be founded upon scientifics, except it be previously founded upon the Word. This must be first; the other is merely a confirmation from man's scientifics.

In Swedenborg's scientific and philosophical works, and also in the Writings, there are many teachings to the effect that apart from the Word man can discover nothing at all about the existence of a God who is to be worshipped and loved, nor that there is a life after death, and a heaven and a hell, nor yet anything whatever about the things that belong to heavenly life. In other words, there is no such thing as what the Writings call natural theology. By going out into nature and observing it, you can learn no more about God than you already knew about God before you went out into nature.

And yet, in what we might call Swedenborg's first work on theology, The Infinite and the Final Cause of Creation, he assayed to prove by logic the existence of a God and the immortality of the human soul. On his third foreign journey, 1733-1734, he had gone to Leipzig to publish his Principia, that remarkable study of the mode of creation and of the nature of elemental substance. In it he begins from God or the Infinite, of course, but the Principia is not a work primarily designed to prove the existence of God. The Infinite is.

In Leipzig, apparently, Swedenborg came into contact with the agnosticism and atheism then current in the learned world. His first major religious writing seems to have resulted from this contact.

The Infinite is no theological treatise on such doctrines as the Trinity and the internal sense of the Word, but is, instead, a highly philosophical, extremely logical discourse to prove the existence of an Infinite, and to show that this Infinite is the final cause of an ordered creation. From reason, by reason, it endeavors to prove the existence of God by the cosmological argument: Every effect must have a cause, and hence creation must have a Creator.

But it ends by showing that this argument must essentially lead to the revelation of Jesus Christ.

In The Infinite Swedenborg speaks highly of human reason and rationality, but he does not speak of them in such a way as to teach that reason without revelation can discover spiritual truths. Hear the following examples.

Philosophy, truly rational, can never be contrary to revelation. (Pref.) The end of reason is that man may perceive what things are revealed - to perceive that there is a God and that He is to be worshipped. (Ibid.) Wisdom and reason were given to venerate and worship the infinite Deity. (V.)

Using the word "divinity" in a peculiar way, he writes,

The true divinity in man is none other than the acknowledgment of the existence and infinity of God, and a sense of delight in the love of God. (XIII.)

And in a section on "the only begotten Son of God," he writes,

Through Him, somewhat of the divine may dwell in us, namely, in the faculty to know and believe that there is a God. . . . By Him we are led to a true religion. (XIV.)

In The Infinite Swedenborg even speaks specifically of natural theology, but though in praise of it, he does so thus

As by the grace of God we have all these matters revealed in Holy Scripture, so where reason is perplexed, . . . we, must at once have recourse to revelation; and where we cannot discover from revelation either what we should adopt, or in what sense we should understand its declarations, we must then fly to the oracle of reason. In this way natural theology must proffer her hand to revealed, where the meaning of revelation seems doubtful; and revealed theology must in turn lend her hand to rational theology when reason is in straits. For revealed and rational theology can never be contrary to each other, if the latter only be truly rational, and does not attempt to penetrate into the mysteries of infinity. (XV.)

Natural theology is mentioned here, yes, but here is no claim that human reason, unaided by revelation, can arrive at all the truths necessary for genuine religion. Rather are revealed and natural theology said to complement each other, natural theology doing what it can to discover truths, but submitting to revelation in matters it cannot discover by itself, and, on the other hand, coming to man's aid where revelation is lacking or is difficult to understand.

Swedenborg's fourth foreign journey began in 1736 and took him to Denmark, Germany, Holland, France, and Italy, and back through some of those countries to Sweden four years later. During this period he was working on the Economy of the Animal Kingdom, and in this, in its religious asides, he first makes direct defense of the necessity of divine revelation in order that man may learn any spiritual and divine truths. Speaking of the formation of the chick in the egg, he says, "All the circumstances here recorded are the most plain proofs of an infinite and omnipotent Divine Providence." He then goes on to show that human reason and philosophy cannot fathom the nature of this infinite, and continues,

But what His Divine nature is; how He is to be worshiped; in what way He is to be approached; by what means He is to be enjoyed - this it has pleased Him (immortal glory be unto Him) to reveal in His holy testaments. (1: 296-298.)

In The Infinite Swedenborg had taught that although human reason could demonstrate the existence of God, it could never fathom His nature. Here he adds a new thought: God has revealed His nature and the quality of genuine worship in "His holy testaments."

In the same vein is the following

He is the wisest of mortals who comprehends this alone with certainty, that he can know nothing of God from himself. (Economy, II: 241.)

Further on in the Economy, speaking of the existence of two suns, the one the sun of the world, the other the sun of life and of wisdom, he writes,

The one sun is within nature, the other is above it; the one is physical, the other is purely moral; and the one falls under the philosophy of the mind, while the other lies withdrawn among the sacred mysteries of theology, between which two there are boundaries that it is impossible for human faculties to transcend. For the mind, which is within nature, there is no path open beyond and above nature; consequently none by which its philosophy can penetrate into the sanctuary of theology.

And then notice these words:

No human faculty of perception can possibly understand of itself . . . the existence and nature of anything higher than itself. (II: 266.)

Such teachings leave hardly any room for natural theology and religion, and in these teachings, furthermore, there is at least the germ of the idea that the human proprium cannot give birth to any spiritual or divine truth. The same thought is also beautifully stated in these words:

No one can enter into God except God Himself, whose will it is that our thoughts should terminate in a certain infinity and abyss of things, which should throw us into a state of holy amazement, and so give rise to profound adoration of His being, and a sacred unbounded ascription of honor to His name. Then it is that He receives us, takes us into His confidence, and stretches forth His hand to save us, lest we perish in the deep. . . . In vain do we endeavor to find, except from revelation, how God acts. (II: 252-3.)

And the very last paragraph of the Economy contains a specific defense of the Scriptures, after stating that their rules are the laws by which the city of God may be obtained. It reads,

These rules are not so dark or obscure as the philosophy of the mind, and the love of self and of the world, would make them; nor so deep and hidden but that any sincere soul, which permits the spirit of God to govern it, may draw them from this pure fountain, pure enough for the use and service of the members of the city of God all over the world. (II: 366.)

The Economy, then, was published about 1740-1741. In it, Swedenborg no longer was placing so much trust in the ability of human reason to prove the existence of an infinite, creating God. Now he says that the divine nature, its worship, man's approach to it, are - glory be to God - things revealed in God's holy testaments. Human reason cannot enter into God. God must be revealed, and man must approach revelation in a spirit of humility. To such a humble approach, God will reveal out of the Scriptures those laws of life that lead to the city of God.

After writing the Economy, Swedenborg continued his studies in anatomy, and published several works on the body, the brain, etc. In them, however, I have found no important statements bearing on our subject. But now we have arrived at the great turning-point in Swedenborg's life. A fifth foreign journey, lasting from 1743 to 1745, took him to Germany, Holland, and England. It was during this time that the Lord first appeared to him. The spiritual world was opened to him, and he was on the final pathway to becoming the instrument for the revelation of the Second Advent.

The first large work he wrote after this we call the Word Explained. In it he makes several statements concerning the absolute necessity of revelation in order that man may learn spiritual and heavenly things, but we here quote only the following, from a section on "Human Philosophy and the Divine Word."

It is most surely a constant truth that without . . . the Divine Word, there would have been no knowledge whatsoever of things spiritual and heavenly, yea, and no knowledge of the state of our soul after the death of the body. This is so clear that none can deny it. From what other source can such knowledge come, if not from revelation? The natural man, that is to say, man after the fall, can have no knowledge of things of this kind from himself; for his wisdom or understanding extends only to such things as are before the eyes, or are present to the senses; nor can he ever elevate himself above such things. The truth of this statement is abundantly proved; for we see it evidenced in those who are in the very midst of this knowledge. The Divine Word is preached before them daily, and they take or drink therefrom; and yet in their hearts or minds they deny that such things as are drawn from the Divine Word have any existence. And when men who live in the midst of these knowledges . . . have, not a fluctuating faith, but no faith at all, what would then have been the case if the world had been without the Divine Word? . . . Man of himself can never elevate himself above himself and behold the things that are above him. . . . Therefore the knowledges of such things can come from no other source than the Messiah, who is in heaven, and who is heaven itself and the very Word of God. (WE 904-905.)

Without the Word, no knowledge at all of things spiritual and heavenly, no knowledge of the state of the soul after death,

After the Word Explained comes the Spiritual Diary, and shortly after that had been begun, the Arcana Caelestia. Some time after 1754 and some time before the Last judgment of 1757, Swedenborg reported in the Diary a dispute he heard in the spiritual world between those who favored natural theology and those who favored revealed.

Natural theology could discover nothing at all about the Divine, about heaven and hell, about life after death, or about faith, unless man had previously known these things from revelation. (SD 4757-4759.)

The same teaching is elaborated in the Arcana, no. 8944, De Verbo 16, and Sacred Scripture 114-118, where we read,

Without the Word no one would have knowledge of God, of heaven and hell, of a life after death, and still less of the Lord.

There is, then, only one source of truth, only one source of a sight of the Lord, and that source is the Word of God. There are, however, two foundations of truth, nature, or the truths of nature, and the Word. For those who believe the Word, truth may be founded or based on its literal teachings. But for those who doubt or deny the Word as it is in its letter, natural truth - the genuine truths of philosophy, science, and experience - must be the foundation, and by those truths such persons must be led to see the genuine truth that is in the internal sense of the Word, with which genuine natural truth can never disagree.

-The New Philosophy 1966;69:240-249

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Two Sources of Truth

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