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What form of Bible interpretation do you follow when you read the Bible?

How do you interpret what you read? Do you take it literally, or do you have this feeling that there must be something more to it than the mythical or historical fact, or terrifying prediction? For example, did God really create the world in 7 days? Did Noah really manage to collect two of every kind of creature in the ark to protect them from the flood? Did the Israelites really wander for 40 years in the wilderness, eating nothing but manna and quails? Will God really destroy the world as described in the upheavals documented in the book of Revelation?

Do these stories contain some meaning that is relevant to us today, or should they be dismissed as scientific impossibilities?

There are three ways we can approach this conundrum. We can accept the literal sense as absolute fact and approach Bible interpretation that way; it is the Word of God, after all. Or we can dismiss any type of Bible interpretation as irrelevant; how can events that happened thousands of years ago matter in the 21st century? Or we can take Bible interpretation in another direction and look for other meanings that are contained within the straight facts that the Bible seems to present.

Emanuel Swedenborg suggests that this third way of Bible interpretation is the route we should adopt. In his little book Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture he writes: "the Lord has revealed to me its internal sense. This in its essence is spiritual, and resides in the external sense which is natural, as the soul in the body. This internal sense is the spirit which gives life to the Letter; and it can therefore bear witness to the divinity and holiness of the Word, and it can convince even the natural man, if he is willing to be convinced".

This gives us a middle route that suggests that the literal sense of the Bible is merely the container for an inner, spiritual sense. He tells us that: "in the spiritual sense all things cohere in a continuous sequence, to the perfect arrangement of which each word contributes in the sense of the Letter, or natural sense".

So the literal sense is perfectly constructed to contain the spiritual sense, and the sequence of the literal sense and therefore the spiritual sense is lost if even one word were taken away.

Swedenborg goes on to write in his great exposition of the first two books of the Bible, Arcana Caelestia (Heavenly Secrets): "As long as the mind confines itself to the sense of the letter alone one cannot possibly see that its contents embody matters that are spiritual and celestial".

If we look beyond the storylines of the Bible, what do we find? The inner meaning tells us about our spiritual birth, growth and ultimate destination. The entire Bible can be thought of as a guidebook that tells us about our spiritual journey to the next life. It is full of good advice on how we should live our lives, and the pitfalls we are likely to encounter as we advance. But how do we find the inner meaning in this kind of Bible interpretation? Swedenborg describes the science of correspondences that link the natural world we live in with the spiritual world that we aspire to reach. He writes in Heaven and Hell 89: "The whole natural world corresponds to the spiritual world, not only the natural world in general but also in every particular. Therefore, whatever in the natural world comes into existence from the spiritual world is said to be in correspondence with it. It must be known that the natural world comes into existence and continues in existence from the spiritual world, precisely like an effect from its effecting cause".

What, then, are the internal meanings of the storylines mentioned above? Swedenborg writes that the six days of creation correspond to the six stages that our spiritual growth must progress through on our journey to the seventh day, which corresponds to heaven. Remarkably, this is a summary of the rest of the Bible, because all the following storylines effectively fill in the spiritual detail, leading to the final chapters of the book of Revelation with the descent of the New Jerusalem corresponding to our reaching the seventh state of spiritual growth, being fully in the presence and influence of the Lord and experiencing the heavenly peace and joy that this brings.

What of the story of Noah and the ark? Would a loving God really kill off most of the world’s population? Of course not. The story represents a time in our lives when we realise that we have been turning away from the Lord and been more concerned with selfish ideas. The ark represents the new person we build when we come to rely on the Lord, the pairs of animals the good things that we need to keep with us, and the flood the washing away of all the evil that has infiltrated our lives.

The 40 years spent by the Israelites in the wilderness correspond to the difficulties we face as we continue on our life’s journey, facing up to all the pressures and temptations that confront us daily. There is hope – after all, they eventually reached the promised land, which corresponds to heaven. But there were still battles to be fought with all the nations that already occupied Canaan. For us this means that we can achieve a heavenly state from time to time by following the Lord’s guidance, but we must be prepared to confront other evils as we progress through the stages of our spiritual growth.

The mayhem described in the book of Revelation is a reminder that, as we come close to our final destination, pressures become more severe, temptations become harder to resist, and more deeply rooted evils still need to be “cast down into the abyss”. The thousand years? This indicates that our spiritual rebirth and growth does not happen instantly. The destruction of Babylon? This corresponds to us letting go of the things that have previously dominated our thinking. The beast with seven heads and ten horns? This tells us that evils of our own making are still rising up and need to be overcome before we can reach our final destination.

The same is the case for interpreting the rest of the Bible – there is always an inner, spiritual meaning containing deep spiritual wisdom that is telling us about different aspects of our spiritual growth. The historical and mythical themes in the literal sense are interesting and often wonderfully inspiring, but the real significance for all of us is contained as heavenly secrets in the spiritual sense.


For a article on the creation story using this style of Bible interpretation click on this link:

Creation Story


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